SELC chides Turnpike Authority over Bypass

Dec. 08, 2012 @ 02:47 PM

The Southern Environmental Law Center has questioned efforts to correct the environmental study flaws tht derailed the $800 million Monroe Bypass project.
 In a Nov. 30, 42-page letter from SELC attorneys to N.C. Turnpike Authority regional engineer Jennifer Harris begins by reiterating the U.S. Fourth Circuit of Appeals ruling from this spring that the NCTA's environmental study was "arbitrary and capricious.
On behalf of the suit's plaintiffs, the SELC has watched what steps the SELC has taken to fix problems that the court found with the environmental study.
"These efforts, like the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that came before, fall far short of meeting the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)."
The SELC pointed out flaws in the NCTA's study that remain, even after the NCTA claims to have resolved the problems that led to the May 2012 ruling.
"While we have not yet been afforded the opportunity to review NCTA's new documentation in its entirety, we have reviewed some of the agency's communications to state and federal resource agencies over the past month," the letter states. "The comments below stem from our review of those materials and other statements and presentations made by NCTA at public meetings and in the press."
The appeals court ruled that the NCTA's environmental analysis did not properly analyze alternatives to a bypass or properly compare future development with a bypass versus not building a road.
"Despite the clear mandate from one of the nation's highest courts to revisit its earlier flawed analysis, NCTA has unfortunately chosen not to address the key errors head on, but rather to merely re-explain its earlier rejected analysis," the letter reads.
The letter also accuses the NCTA of actively continuing work on the bypass before allowing a public comment period before publishing a new Record of Decision.
"Recent statements and actions make it clear that NCTA has already made its decision and does not intend to perform the new analysis required by the United States Court of Appeals to revision that decision.
Rather than revisit its analysis, NCTA intends only to 're-explain' its analysis and has no intention of revisiting its pre-determined conclusion that it will construct the Monroe Connector/Bypass," the letter states.  
The letter goes on to question the NCTA's assurance that building the bypass would not induce growth.
"As explained in more detail below, this doggedly-held position sits at odds with all other analyses of the proposed Bypass, including all public and political justifications for the Monroe Connector/Bypass, planned developments dependent on the Monroe Connector/Bypass, conclusions in other documents produced by the NCTA, updated forecasts of growth in Union County and academic research into the effects of highway construction," the letter states.
The SELC also points to comments made by local officials about bypass-related growth. It quotes the Union County Chamber of Commerce as stating that "town leaders are preparing for more commercial and residential growth plus increased traffic with completion of the Monroe Bypass freeway."
Similar statements about more stores and houses cropping up along the bypass route made by the City of Monroe, Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, officials working on the U.S. 74 Revitalization Plan, Charlotte Regional Partnership, Southern Piedmont Community College and a pro-bypass Facebook group that touts the road's potential for economic development. Even state-level NCTA officials stated the bypass would make Union County more attractive to business and industry.
Those statements contradict the NCTA's impact studies which showed minimal growth.
"Despite statements at every level of Government that the Monroe Connector/Bypass will bring significant growth and development to Union County and beyond, NCTA persists in advancing the fiction in its environmental documents that the project will not impact growth outcomes," the letter states.
The SELC letter states all large economic development projects dependent on bypass construction be included in the environmental impact study. Construction of Legacy Park, a planned 5,000-acre industrial park near Marshville, depends heavily on the bypass's completion.
"We also note that more than half of the acreage to be incorporated into the Park is owned by the estate of Carroll Edward, a former Board of Transportation member who resigned in 1997 after it was revealed that he improperly steered NCTA projects to benefit himself or his businesses, or his family," the letter states.
The SELC attorneys go on to suggest topics the NCTA should revisit in its revision of the bypass impact studies. One suggestion was using growth projection data from a source other than the Mecklenburg Union Metroploitan Planning Organization, which NCTA staff stated in court they knew contained assumptions that a bypass was already built. They suggested other actions like updating traffic forecasts, cumulative development impacts, a full analysis of alternatives and clarifying their statement of purpose and need.
"We submit these comments at this time as a courtesy to NCTA, and in no way waive our right to supplement our comments at a later date," the letter states.