Chamber presses for DOT action on Bypass

Mar. 05, 2013 @ 05:21 PM

Construction on the Monroe Bypass has been pushed back another year, and some Union County officials are not happy.

The Union County Chamber of Commerce submitted a resolution to local towns, businesses and elected bodies to express support for speeding up construction.

In a letter to Union County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis, Chamber President Sharon Rosché urged the school board to adopt a draft resolution “in support of asking elected officials to expedite this project.” The resolution also appeared on the Monroe City Council consent agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting.

Bypass supporters are willing to take their request to Raleigh and Washington D.C. to send a clear message that the bypass is the county’s highest priority.

“After many setbacks the North Carolina Department of Transportation led us to believe that it would begin in 2013,” Rosché wrote. “ We recently found out they are trying to push it out further in to 2014. The delay of this project is negatively impacting the local economy and delaying our ability to recover as a County.”

Later, Rosché said much of the county’s economic progress is on hold awaiting some movement in the project. The project’s first manager, the N.C. Turnpike Authority, stated that work should resume early this year. All work halted last May after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled the NCTA did not properly perform impact studies.

Appeals court judges told NCTA officials to fix problems in that impact study. After unsuccessfully asking the court to take another look at their arguments, the NCTA stated they remained committed to the bypass and would likely restart work in early 2013.

“But, that kind of got messed up because it was originally handled by the Turnpike Authority and now all those people are gone and it’s being handled by NCDOT,” Rosché said.

NCDOT officials announced a new record of decision may

See Chamber/Page A5

not be ready until early 2014 during a breakfast meeting with the Union County Chamber last month. Rosché said it was the first time she heard the timeline was pushed back.

“We know from conversations with Drew Boggs that it was supposed to start back up this year and move forward, but then the DOT said it would take longer,” she said.

So the chamber began drafting a resolution asking that the project move forward earlier. It argues that the bypass would relieve congestion on Highway 74, reduce commute times and make the county more competitive for new and expanding business. It mentions potential growth for Wingate University, development in Wingate and Marshville, more industry to even out the county’s mostly residential tax base, access to Wilmington and the beach and faster ambulance response times.

It is unclear if their resolution will change the record of decision date, but Rosché said the chamber will try.

“We don’t know, but we’re looking at ways to accelerate it,” she said. “I think they could if the DOT made it a priority.”

Right now, there are no bypass updates, NCDOT Director of Communications Greer Beaty said.

“Our engineers and consultants continue to work on updating the environmental documents so they can answer the court’s concerns,” Beaty said. “When they’re done, we will publish the results to the public.”

Since she had not read the Union Chamber’s resolution, she could not comment on the feasibility of accelerating the process, but emphasized that the NCDOT was working “very hard on very technical data and they’re completely committed to addressing the issues brought up by the court.”

“We have to follow the federal process and we’ve been working very, very to get the information together and make sure it as accurate as possible,” Beaty said.

Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the firm representing the previous case’s plaintiffs, found the resolution interesting. Many of the points made about industrial and commercial growth is contrary to statements made earlier by NCTA and NCDOT officials, attorneys said.

“The resolution further illustrates the confusion surrounding the purpose and impacts of the proposed Monroe Bypass project,” SELC attorney Kym Hunter said. “Contrary to this resolution, NCDOT insists that the Bypass will not bring growth and development to Union County, nor does NCDOT expect the Bypass to alleviate congestion for local traffic on US 74.

“Only if NCDOT is clear and transparent with the public about this expensive project’s real purpose and impact, can local and state decision-makers make informed  choices about what is best for Union County and the state.”

Will it cause growth?

Rosché argues there is a definite link between the bypass and economic development.

“We lose projects sometimes just because of travel time to Union County via Highway 74 alone,” Rosché wrote. “This should not be a reason we lose projects that create jobs in a time of such high unemployment.”

A completed bypass would mean smart business growth that would certainly help the county’s lopsided 20 percent industrial and 80 percent residential tax base, she said. It will also make Union County able to compete with other areas for new business. The bypass would also encourage development in Wingate and Marshville, which had less development than the county’s western side in recent years.

“Chris Platé (director of Monroe-Union County Economic Development) has told me that he’s lost projects because of the 74 traffic,” Rosché said. “If we want more companies coming into the area, we need to do something to fix that.”

Bypass-induced development continues to be a problem for bypass planners. In its original impact studies, the NCTA found that the road would cause less than 1 percent impact on growth outcomes. Last November, the SELC sent a letter to the NCTA, commenting on the agency’s comments to the public and the press about what needs to be done with impact studies to conform to the appeals court’s ruling. 

SELC attorneys pointed to comments made by Union County officials, Charlotte business experts and state officials that the bypass would spur new businesses and housing along the road’s route.

“Rather than disclose the true environmental impact of the Monroe Connector/Bypass in a new environmental document, NCTA has stated its intent to stick to the conclusion reached in the original, rejected EIS (Environmental Impact Study), that the Monroe Connector/Bypass will make little difference to growth and development patterns in the study area,” the SELC wrote.