Public Interest Groups Ask Judge to Put an Immediate Halt to Billion-Dollar Bypass
Environmental groups filed a motion for a preliminary injunction (pdf) in federal court late yesterday seeking an immediate halt to any further action by the N.C. Department of Transportation on the proposed Monroe Bypass near Charlotte, including the issuance of bonds.
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Clean Air Carolina and Yadkin Riverkeeper, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, say that NCDOT, in its rush to get the Charlotte-area toll road approved and built, violated federal law, ignored lower cost solutions to fixing U.S. 74 traffic, and misled the public about the true impacts of the bypass on air and water quality.
“The congestion mess on U.S. 74 clearly needs to be addressed, but NCDOT’s badly flawed analysis of the proposed bypass is a disservice to those seeking a cost-effective, environmentally sound solution for our community,” said Chandra Taylor, SELC Senior Attorney. “With construction slated to start in January, we are left with no choice but to ask a judge to halt all activity on this project until a full hearing on the study’s gross inaccuracies occurs.”
The highway’s nearly $1 billion price tag, less than half of which would come from tolls and the rest of which will be paid with taxpayer dollars, would saddle the state with decades of debt. Not only is this an ill-advised project for the Charlotte region, it would siphon money away from other services and programs at a time when North Carolina faces an estimated $3.5 billion budget deficit for the coming year.
The groups filed suit against NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration on November 2; yesterday’s filing seeks an immediate injunction on all work while the lawsuit is pending. Among other claims, they say the agency illegally biased the outcome of its environmental study by assuming the highway already existed when it assessed the impacts of a “no build” option. After the groups pointed this blunder out in comments last year, the agency denied it. However, internal documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the agency did, in fact, make this critical error.
The groups also say NCDOT failed to fully evaluate alternatives for building the 20-mile highway to ease congestion along U.S. 74 in Union and Mecklenburg counties, including its own 2007 study showing that upgrades and improvements in the U.S. 74 corridor would address the problem at a tiny fraction of the cost. Further, the agency denied that the highway would lead to sprawl development-despite the fact it includes nine access points, averaging one every 2.5 miles-and so failed to assess how growth would impact regional air and water quality.
“The Charlotte region is taking a lot of positive steps to enhance our transportation system while preserving natural resources and quality of life. The Monroe Bypass is not one of them,” Taylor said.
“This road would take a toll on wetlands and wildlife, not to mention the integrity of the processes that guide wise decision-making on critical transportation issues. It’s not just natural resources that would be squandered,” said Tim Gestwicki, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
“Given the air quality problems in our region and a more stringent ozone standard due to be announced next month, we must consider the environmental impacts of major transportation projects very carefully,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina. “If more cost-effective, sustainable alternatives exist, they should be given priority.”