News | January 11, 2016

SELC asks NCDOT to rethink $2.5B Raleigh toll road

Southern Environmental Law Center is asking the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration to take a fresh look at less costly, less damaging alternatives to a proposed toll road around Raleigh that is expected to cost more than $2 billion dollars—making it the most expensive highway in North Carolina history. 

“In return for this massive price tag, NCDOT anticipates the new highway will save travelers just 10 minutes,” said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “And that’s just for drivers rich enough to pay the toll.”

Starr, who grew up in Garner in the vicinity of the proposed 540 project, notes that, not only does the toll road represent bad value, but every potential route would devastate local communities and the natural environment. 

“Each outdated, expensive toll highway option presented by NCDOT would require hundreds of families to relocate and do unprecedented damage to the environment, destroying at least 50 acres of wetlands, miles of streams, and severely impacting water quality in southern Wake County” said Starr. 

June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina echoed Starr’s concerns. “This overpriced and unnecessary toll highway will directly impact the health of everyone in the region by increasing air pollution during the construction phase as well as putting more cars on the road” said Blotnick. 

The comments SELC filed on behalf of Sound Rivers and Clean Air Carolina documented twenty-five Wake County schools and six Johnston County public schools that fall within the vicinity of the toll road would face increased air pollution from the project.

NCDOT has thus far refused to seriously consider any lower-cost solutions such as upgrades to the existing highway system or expanded mass transit. Such options would not only keep communities intact and preserve the environment, but they would be open for all drivers—not just those able to pay a costly toll.

Now that the price of the road has skyrocketed, however, NCDOT might be forced to look at these cost-effective solutions. The more than $2 billion price tag is significantly higher—more than double—the funding allocated in North Carolina’s ten-year transportation plan. NCDOT has not yet explained where it anticipates finding the missing $1 billion—a pertinent question at a time when NCDOT is already raising taxes and vehicle fees in an attempt to pay for its long back log of crumbling bridges and unsafe roads.

The high project cost also raises questions as to whether the project fairly achieved funding under the state’s new data-driven process used to rank transportation projects. The new “Strategic Transportation Investments” process was established by the legislature in 2013 and requires transportation projects to compete for funding based on a variety of factors including their cost-to-benefit ratio. A review of the data used to score the Complete 540 project reveals that NCDOT used project cost estimates that represent just a small fraction of the more than $2 billion costs estimate included in the environmental documents. 

“If legitimate project cost estimates had been used during the scoring process, it is unlikely that the Complete 540 project would have outranked other more cost effective, needed transportation improvements in the state,” said Staff Attorney Kym Hunter. “If this new data-driven process is to mean anything, it is essential that realistic data be used, so we are urging NCDOT to re-score the project using the true cost estimates.”

The groups hope the transportation agencies will carefully consider their comments as the agencies continue to review ways to improve mobility in Wake County while preserving a high quality of life.