Still No Honest Account of $850 Million Monroe Bypass Purpose & Impact
~~The Southern Environmental Law Center today filed suit on behalf of three conservation groups in United States District Court, challenging the latest inadequate review of impacts from the controversial $850 million Monroe Bypass toll highway. Clean Air Carolina, the Yadkin Riverkeeper and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation allege that the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration failed their legal duty to provide an honest, transparent account of the purpose for the proposed highway and its likely impact on local communities in Union County.
“Unfortunately as we’ve seen in the past, honesty is still not NCDOT’s policy when it comes to the Monroe Bypass,” said Kym Hunter, an SELC attorney representing the groups. In May 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down NCDOT”s earlier attempt at environmental review of the project and strongly admonished the agency for repeatedly providing misstatements to the public. Despite this rebuke the agency has not changed its practices and continues to intentionally mislead the public about the purpose and impacts of the toll highway.
“When in public, politicians and state leaders have touted the bypass’s supposed benefits to heavily congested U.S. 74. In private, however, NCDOT has made clear that improving that existing highway is not their intent,” explained Hunter.
In an internal document obtained by SELC, a key DOT staffer stated that the department “would not be in favor of changes to US-74 that would have a competing interest with the bypass.” The DOT’s focus is on collecting toll revenue, not the relief of local traffic.
DOT’s internal forecasts of future traffic tell the same story: No improvement to existing levels of congestion on U.S. 74 is expected if the $850 million bypass is constructed.
SELC and the conservation groups believe Union County residents deserve better. The groups worked with local residents to encourage the transportation agencies to look at less costly options that would actually improve travel for local drivers in Union County — rather than entirely bypass the county and its businesses for only those able to pay a toll. Five Union County municipalities have joined the call and passed resolutions urging alternative solutions.
Working with expert engineers, transportation planners and NCDOT’s own data, the conservation groups have identified a number of specific lower-cost improvements that would have a swift and direct impact on improving congestion on the existing highway and promoting driver safety. NCDOT has ignored these alternatives so far, but the conservation groups hope that by filing the lawsuit these low-cost solutions will get a proper review.
“The bypass will be tremendously destructive,” added Hunter, “some of the farms that it will eliminate have been with families for over a century. Before NCDOT imposes that sort of destructive impact on the community we believe it should provide an honest assessment of what is truly expected if it is built. NCDOT needs to be upfront and admit to the public what its own documents show: This massive investment of taxpayer money is not going to improve current congestion on U.S. 74, nor is it going to bring vast economic development to the county.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of almost 60 legal and policy experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.