CHAPEL HILL, N.C – On behalf of Sound Rivers and Clean Air Carolina, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed comments with the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration asking that they take a fresh look at less costly, less damaging alternatives to the proposed extension of the 540 outer loop around Raleigh. NCDOT expects the proposed toll road to cost $2.1 -2.6 billion dollars—making it the most expensive highway in North Carolina history.
“In return for this massive price tag, NCDOT anticipates the new highway will save travelers just 10 minutes,” said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “And that’s just for drivers rich enough to pay the toll.”
Starr, who grew up in Garner in the vicinity of the proposed project, notes that not only does the toll road represent bad value, but every single potential route would devastate local communities and the natural environment.
“Each outdated, expensive toll highway option presented by NCDOT would require hundreds of families to relocate and do unprecedented damage to the environment, destroying at least 50 acres of wetlands, thousands of miles of streams and severely impacting water quality in Southern Wake County” said Starr.
June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina echoed Starr’s concerns. “This overpriced and unnecessary toll highway will directly impact the health of everyone in the region by increasing air pollution during the construction phase as well as putting more cars on the road” said Blotnick. “Children’s developing lungs are extremely vulnerable to air pollution. Twenty-five Wake County schools and six Johnston County public schools fall within the vicinity of the toll road. We cannot continue to sacrifice our children’s health by prioritizing transportation investments that increase pollution.”
NCDOT has thus far refused to seriously consider any lower-cost solutions such as upgrades the existing highway system or expanded mass transit. Such options would not only keep communities intact and preserve the environment, but they would be open for all drivers—not just those able to pay a costly toll.
Now that the price of the road has skyrocketed, however, NCDOT might be forced to look at these cost-effective solutions. The more than $2 billion price tag is significantly higher—more than double—the funding allocated in North Carolina’s ten-year transportation plan. NCDOT has not yet explained where it anticipates finding the missing $1 billion—a pertinent question at a time when NCDOT is already raising taxes and vehicle fees in an attempt to pay for its long back log of crumbling bridges and unsafe roads.
The high project cost also raises questions as to whether the project fairly achieved funding under the state’s new data-driven process used to rank transportation projects. The new
“Strategic Transportation Investments” process was set in place by the legislature in 2013 and requires transportation projects to compete for funding based on a variety of factors including their cost to benefit ratio. A review of the data used to score the Complete 540 project reveals that NCDOT used project cost estimates that represent just a small fraction of the more than $2 billion costs estimate included in the environmental documents.
“If legitimate project cost estimates had been used during the scoring process, it is unlikely that the Complete 540 project would have outranked other more cost effective, needed transportation improvements in the state,” said Kym Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center representing the conservation groups. “If this new data-driven process is to mean anything, it is essential that realistic data be used. We therefore urge NCDOT to re-score the project using the true cost estimates.”
The groups hope the transportation agencies will carefully consider their comments as the agencies continue to review ways to improve mobility in Wake County while preserving a high quality of life.
About the Southern Environmental Law Center
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.
About Sound Rivers
The mission of Sound Rivers is to monitor and protect the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico River watersheds covering nearly one quarter of North Carolina, and to preserve the health and beauty of the river basin through environmental justice.
About Clean Air Carolina
Clean Air Carolina is a non-profit organization based in Charlotte, NC. Its mission is to ensure cleaner air quality by educating the community about how air quality affects our health, advocating for stronger clean air policies, and partnering with other organizations committed to cleaner air and sustainable practices.