SELC community meetings question reasons for bypass

Oct. 03, 2013 @ 02:02 PM

As construction for the Monroe Bypass is delayed, the Southern Environmental Law Center continues to question the fundamental reasons to build it.
SELC attorneys Frank Holleman and Kym Hunter addressed a crowd of about 50 people in the Piedmont High School cafeteria Tuesday. They touched on enduring problems cited by bypass critics. But they also delved into questions specific to residents of the county's northwestern corner and how the road will change their community.
Holleman said the N.C. Department of Transportation has not properly justified building the bypass.
"That's what we have focused on. Is this a cost effective way to do it and is it an affective way of doing it," Holleman said. "Given the consequences of the bypass, is this the best way to approach that question."
By its own admission, the N.C. Department of Transportation never intended the bypass as a way to ease traffic congestion on Highway 74, Holleman said. Instead, it was a way of getting beach traffic through the county faster.
The SELC sued on behalf of environmental groups that were not convinced the N.C. Turnpike Authority, the NCDOT agency working on bypass plans, performed the environmental and development impact studies required by the federal Environmental Protection Act, Holleman said. Though state and federal road officials won the suit at the local level, a federal appeals court ruled that Turnpike Authority staff knew the studies were based on data that assumed the road was already built. As a result, the impact studies showed little to no impact resulting from bypass construction, Holleman said. In May 2012, the court ordered state officials to halt bypass work and redo impact studies.
"You need to look at what happens if you build it and what happens if you don't build it. Compare the two and see if it's a good idea and it's worth the money," Holleman said.
But SELC attorneys question building a bypass, even with proper environmental studies. The 19-mile road has nine interchanges and was originally estimated to cost $900 million to build. The tolls - $2.50 for ordinary vehicles and $10 for large trucks - will not generate enough revenue to make yearly debt payments on the construction debt, he said.
"One key question is, is that the best way to spend $900 million or could you get the same results that are more effective for the community at less cost?" Holleman said.
But one difference in this presentation from those the SELC has given in other communities was a focus on N.C. Highway 218. Though NCDOT studied ways the bypass might impact 74, it has never considered the ways a toll road would changes traffic patterns on 218, Holleman said.
When state road officials surveyed commercial truck drivers about how often they would use a toll road, reaction was mixed, Hunter said. Some said they would gladly pay $10 to avoid congestion on 74. Some said they would take other routes to avoid tolls. One possible alternative route mentioned was 218, which is narrow and rural. Area residents worry that increased truck traffic will make the highway more dangerous and that NCDOT will do little to make it safer.
"We've gotten some calls from people who expressed concerns that we support using 218 as an alternative route for the bypass," Hunter said. "We don't support that idea at all."
The SELC encourages the NCDOT to study the 218 traffic impact, though the state agency has stated it has no plans to, Hunter said.
But the law firm does promote alternatives to building the bypass. Weddington, Marvin, Mineral Springs and Hemby Bridge passed resolutions asking the NCDOT to look again at improving 74 or some other route to increase traffic flow, Hunter said. Some improvements, like changing traffic signal phases, are already being planned by NCDOT, Hunter said.
Some officials predict the bypass could harm economic development in places like downtown Monroe. It has already required the sale of farms owned by generations of the same family, Hunter said. Many Union County residents fear more houses will crop up along the bypass, meaning residential tax payers will pay higher rates to provide services and schools to newcomers, she said.
But perhaps the biggest reason to worry is the condition of some existing roads. There are roads and intersections that need improvements that are not currently funded. Some projects have been delayed for years.
"There are upgrades that need to be done, potholes that need to be fixed, there are bridges that are crumbling," Hunter said. "All of these are improvements that are needed and the state cannot afford to make these improvements while spending $900 million on the bypass."