Appeals court rules federal, state agencies illegally approved controversial NC highway
In a landmark ruling that has national implications, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled that the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration illegally failed to consider and disclose the potential sprawl-inducing impacts of a 20-mile highway bypass near Charlotte.
The court also chastised the transportation agencies for falsely denying to the public and other permitting agencies that they had essentially compared “building the road” with “building the road.”
“This is a wake-up call for NCDOT and transportation agencies around the country that the only legal way to assess environmental impacts of building major highways is to factor in resulting sprawl development on the landscape,” said David Farren, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He said this is one of a only a few federal appellate rulings dealing with the fundamental precept that DOTs fully consider these secondary and cumulative impacts of building major highways when conducting environmental impact studies under the National Environmental Policy Act.
SELC represented Clean Air Carolina, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Yadkin Riverkeeper in challenging the agencies’ approval of the controversial Monroe Bypass, a $700 million, four-lane highway on the suburban-rural fringe of metro Charlotte, one of the nation’s fastest growing metro areas.
The groups said the NCDOT and FHWA turned logic on its head by assuming the bypass already existed when they analyzed a “no build” option. This fundamental flaw skewed the examination of cheaper and less damaging alternatives, and prevented a valid comparison of potential environmental impacts. Using faulty assumptions and flawed methodology, the transportation agencies claimed the Monroe Bypass would only make a one percent difference in the level of growth in the region. When the conservation groups pointed out this flaw, NCDOT denied it – a falsehood that was conceded only when confronted in court.
In a 16-page ruling (pdf), the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the flawed environmental impact statement, calling into question the validity of multiple permits that have been issued for the project. “The record here is devoid of any evidence establishing that the region is developmentally saturated such that a major toll road will no have no appreciable environmental impact,” the court wrote. “Here the Agencies not only failed to disclose the assumptions underlying [their data], but provided the public with erroneous information.”
The highly controversial Monroe Bypass would include no less than nine interchanges in 20 miles, on average one every two miles. The highway and ensuing development would pose a threat to water quality in the Yadkin River watershed, which provides drinking water for people and habitat for several rare aquatic species, and would increase vehicle-exhaust pollution in metro Charlotte, which just last week received an “F” for ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report. The existing parallel U.S. 74 corridor is highly congested, but DOT ignored its own study suggesting that all but one of the intersections could be improved for a cost of only $15 million.
“Residents of the Charlotte region can breathe a little easier now that the 4th Circuit has put the brakes on the Monroe Bypass,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina. “This decision comes during EPA’s Air Quality Awareness Week as we call attention to the causes of air pollution like major highway projects. Clean Air Carolina looks forward to a new environmental impact statement that shows the true cost this highway will have on our region’s air, water and wildlife.”