Bypass ruling was most important story of year

Legal challenge stalls — maybe kills Bypass
Dec. 30, 2012 @ 01:51 PM

In January, progress on the $800 million Monroe Connector-Bypass was a reality, proclaimed officials with the N.C. Turnpike Authority.

After years of delay caused by a lawsuit, a ruling let the NCTA proceed with selling bonds and buying right-of-way. Though plaintiffs in the lawsuit, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, planned to appeal the decision, NCTA officials were confident the first ruling would stand. Some dirt had been turned by early spring, the NCTA announced bypass work would begin in earnest in August.

But work ended abruptly in May. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision on the project. A panel of three federal judges ruled that the NCTA officials knew they based their environmental studies on data that already assumed the road had been built.  When asked to comment on the lack of contrast between a build and no build scenario by environmental groups and federal agencies, the NCTA dismissed concerns.

“In responding to these comments, the Agencies either failed to address the underlying issue or incorrectly stated that the Monroe Connector was not factored into the ‘no build’ baseline,” wrote Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz in the court’s ruling summary.

NCTA attorneys admitted the staff knew the baseline data assumed a large road existed, but carried on with development projections despite questions and criticism. But since so much work had been done on the project, attorneys asked the court to allow them to proceed. They were denied.

A rehearing request by the NCTA was denied by the appeals court. The Federal Highway Administration withdrew its support for the bypass. Permits for the project issued by state and federal agencies were suspended while the NCTA regrouped.

Meanwhile, most of the $800 million borrowed by the NCTA for the bypass sits unused. Landowners who were earlier told the state would buy thousands of acres in the project’s footprint were told the transactions were delayed indefinitely.

The court’s decision did not specify what steps the NCTA needed to take to correct the studies, but officials made public statements that little work would be needed to correct the flaws. SELC attorneys disagreed, stating in a letter that the agency should redo parts of the environmental impact study with different data that does not assume the bypass already exists.

Late in the year, two citizen groups concerned with the bypass emerged. One goup, Keep Union County Moving is a Facebook-based group in favor of ending Highway 74 gridlock and building the Monroe Bypass. Monroe Bypass Facts wants more transparency in the planning and development phase of the project.

The NCTA has stated that work should resume on the bypass in 2013.