Study raises new questions about bypass

Jul. 07, 2013 @ 03:02 PM

So here is the question that motorists and taxpayers in Union County need to ask themselves:

If the traffic volume on U.S. 74 could be reduced by 30 percent during the commute to Charlotte, would you be willing to borrow three-quarters of a billion dollars and displace dozens — maybe hundreds — of homes and businesses at an untold cost to build a toll road that would seldom be used for intra-county travel?

That seems to be the choice that is offered by the latest environmental impact evaluation of the proposed Monroe Bypass by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The NCDOT recently revealed a draft of the findings of its second environmental impact study to the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization. Work on the bypass was halted last year when a federal court ruled the first environmental impact study was so badly flawed that its findings were invalid.

The NCDOT says that this time they did it right. So what did they find? The bypass will create little or no growth — and therefore little or no environmental impact — on Union County.

That is a finding that ought to bring smiles to the faces of construction and utility company executives, heavy equipment operators and others who will build the limited access highway across the county because — if found to be valid — it will assure them of a very nice payday.

But what about the rest of us? What is in it for us? What will we get when the construction is over? For 20 years, county residents have been promised the bypass is the key element in an economic boom that will assure the future of the county. As recently as this spring the Union County Chamber of Commerce executive director campaigned with county municipal leaders to build support for the bypass for this very reason.

Now the NCDOT says the county will get little or nothing in the way of growth as a result of the bypass, certainly not as a toll road, and perhaps only a little more as a free access road. Even the highly touted plans for a sophisticated industrial park in southeastern Union County are dismissed as unlikely.

Without growth — and by that we mean industrial growth that will build our tax base, provide jobs that people need not commute to Charlotte to get, and help the high cost of residential growth — is there any reason to build the bypass?

Sure enough, growth will come again to Union County as the recession ends. We have good schools, low taxes and an attractive family atmosphere. It made us the fastest growing county in the state and seventh in the nation a few years ago. And we will attract new residents who want that lifestyle again.  But that is not the growth we need. We need economic development that balances the cost of residential and commercial growth.

So the answer to our question may be another question: Whom do you believe? The DOT which needs environmental clearance to proceed because it is in too deep — financially and politically — to walk away from this project? Or all those business leaders who stand to split up a cool $800 million to build a road that the NCDOT says will serve no useful purpose for Union County residents?