Raleigh, N.C. — The bill to repeal a ban on considering a controversial highway route through Garner will be moving to the Senate floor as a much bigger proposal than just a fix for the next leg of N.C. Highway 540.
It's become an overhaul of the state's turnpike planning system.
The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved House Bill 10 on Wednesday, but not before Vice Chairman Sen. Bill Rabon added a sweeping amendment that would remove three major turnpike projects from state law.
The Garden Parkway in Gaston, the Mid-Currituck Bridge and the Cape Fear Skyway would all be removed from statute and put back under the Department of Transportation to compete with other projects for the state’s scarce transportation funding.
“This does not kill the projects. This just moves them – puts them where they should be – and then lets professionals and data decide when and what projects should be built,” Rabon said.
'Let the professionals decide'
The amendment also redirects $63 million that was earmarked for the Garden Parkway and Mid-Currituck Bridge into the Mobility Fund, which pays for projects statewide. The change would more than double the Mobility Fund’s balance, from $58 million a year to $121 million a year.
Those two projects were backed by former Democratic Senate leaders David Hoyle and Marc Basnight, respectively.
Rabon is a Republican who represents Brunswick County, where the proposed Cape Fear Skyway has been a controversial topic for years.
“It takes the cherry-picking away from special projects,” Rabon said, adding that he’s been trying to accomplish this goal for two years.
“It’s my goal to put all the projects in this state in the sunlight,” he said. “To let the locals decide what needs to be done, and let the professionals decide what needs to be done, and to take it away from politicians.”
Rabon’s amendment was good news to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has been in litigation over the Garden Parkway for years, alleging that the environmental impact study for the project was flawed. Two of Gaston County's GOP legislators, Sen. Kathy Harrington and Rep. Dana Bumgardner, even campaigned on their opposition to the project.
House sponsor concerned
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, expressed concern that the changes could slow down the bill. He says the N.C. 540 loop has been left on pause for two years because of the ban on the so-called "red route," which would direct the highway through the middle of Garner.
The 2011 law that blocked the state DOT from considering the red route prompted federal transportation officials to cut off planning money for the highway since there were no alternative routes to study.
Dollar urged the Senate to move quickly on the repeal to get the money flowing again. The bill would allow the study of the red route to move forward, but Dollar pledged state lawmakers would never allow that route to be built.
The proposal may have to go to conference committee if the House doesn't agree with Rabon's major changes.
Garner mayor Ronnie Williams attended the meeting. He, too, wants lawmakers to expedite the process, rather than slowing it down.
"I am still opposed to the red route and also the repeal of the law" banning the study, Williams said. "But I'm convinced that, if it's done quickly, they'll make a decision to go back to the 'orange route,' which is where they should be anyway."