Federal Court Rules in Favor of Environmental Groups Challenging Controversial Garden Parkway
Raleigh, N.C – In a ruling late Friday afternoon, a Federal Court dealt what is likely the final killer blow to the controversial Garden Parkway, a proposed toll highway project near Charlotte. Judge James Dever ruled that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (“NCDOT”) and the Federal Highway Administration (“FHWA”) violated federal law in their environmental review of the 21-mile toll highway. The ruling comes after the legislature has stripped the nearly $1 billion road of its earmarked funding. Construction of the project is now extremely unlikely.
The case before the court was brought by two conservation groups, Clean Air Carolina and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center. When the groups first brought the case in 2012, NCDOT was poised to begin construction of the $900 million toll highway project. The groups alerted permitting agencies that NCDOT’s analysis of the highway was fundamentally flawed as it relied on inaccurate and misleading growth estimates and asked that construction not commence until the issues were resolved.
While the legal case has been pending, the Southern Environmental Law Center has worked with state legislators to ensure that the toll highway project was not given preferential funding over higher priority projects. Legislation passed in 2013 stripped the road of its earmarked funding and required it to be vetted through a new scoring process. Not surprisingly, the project received an abysmal score. Disregarding this, NCDOT and FHWA continued to vigorously defend the toll highway in court.
“Judge Dever’s ruling marks the end of a long fought struggle opposing this destructive project, which would have crossed Lake Wylie twice. The combined impact of the highway and the related sprawl, would have had a significant negative impact on Lake Wylie and the water that we use for swimming, fishing and drinking,” said Rick Gaskins, Executive Director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. “This is a tremendous victory for the citizens of the region. We hope NCDOT will now focus on spending our taxpayer dollars on more responsible transportation solutions.”
The toll road has long been deeply unpopular with a majority of Gaston County residents who have been vociferous in their opposition since the project’s inception. The toll highway would destroy numerous homes and communities, fragment wildlife habitat, pollute the Catawba River basin, and intensify the area’s air pollution.
Despite its enormous $900 million price tag, the NCDOT has failed to demonstrate that the Garden Parkway will benefit anyone other than the current and former elected officials who purchased property along the highway’s proposed path. The environmental documents show that construction of the road will do nothing to improve congestion on existing roadways, such as I-85, and far from increasing economic development, will actually shift job growth out of state to South Carolina.
“The Charlotte region’s air quality is finally improving to the point where we are close to meeting truly health-based standards.” said June Blotnick, Executive Director of Clean Air Carolina. “The Garden Parkway and other major highways planned for our region will jeopardize our federal air quality attainment status and threaten the health of our residents.”
The Court’s ruling could have implications far beyond the Garden Parkway. In overturning NCDOT’s analysis, the court noted that the agency “made an unsupported assumption that growth in the [Charlotte] region would remain constant regardless of whether the Garden Parkway was built.”
Kym Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, explains that “this trick — which both overstates the need for the road and understates its destructive impact — has become standard practice for NCDOT.” “Indeed,” notes Hunter, “the same exact practice was used in the environmental review of the equally controversial Monroe Bypass.” A lawsuit challenging that analysis is currently pending before the same Judge and is expected to be heard later this year.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC’s team of almost 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.
The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation advocates for the health, protection and enjoyment of the Catawba-Wateree River watershed. The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation provides education, processes and programs to protect drinking water and the many resources of the entire Catawba-Wateree River watershed. Catawba Riverkeeper’s experienced network includes a diverse community of members, engaged volunteers and professional staff whose dedication of time, talent and resources protect and enhance our river today and for future generations. The vision of Catawba Riverkeeper is for the waters of the entire Catawba-Wateree River basin to always be of high quality and abundant quantity to sustain and enhance the lives of all the humans, the wildlife and the ecosystems that depend on it.
Clean Air Carolina is a non-profit organization based in Charlotte, NC. Its mission is to ensure cleaner air quality by educating the community about how air quality affects our health, advocating for stronger clean air policies, and partnering with other organizations committed to cleaner air and sustainable practices.