Garner, N.C. — State transportation officials said Thursday that the southern portion of the planned N.C. Highway 540 loop around the Triangle will never be built if state lawmakers forbid them from considering a controversial route through Garner.
The state Senate voted unanimously Thursday to block the state Department of Transportation from considering the so-called "red route" of N.C. 540, a toll road also known as the Triangle Expressway.
The state House is expected to vote on the measure next week.
The North Carolina Turnpike Authority recommended in November that the red route not be used because of the adverse affect it would have on 13 neighborhoods, a church and the town’s primary industrial recruitment area.
Still, the DOT must continue to study the option, officials said, because the Army Corps of Engineers requires that at least two proposed routes be studied before it will issue an environmental permit to allow highway construction to begin.
"We're literally at the point that we either study the red route or the project stops," said Steve DeWitt, chief engineer for the Turnpike Authority.
Although the DOT has pledged to Garner officials that the highway wouldn't be built if federal highway officials select the red route for it, the town lobbied for a state law forbidding any consideration of the route. They said the threat of a highway coming through the middle of town was scaring off business and preventing people from buying and selling homes near the route.
DeWitt said he is sympathetic to Garner's situation, but he said he doesn't believe those local concerns should overshadow a regional project.
"The impacts of not having the rest of the outer loop in place will be very large and will be felt for generations to come," he said.
Without N.C. 540 in southern Wake County, traffic on U.S. Highway 70, U.S. Highway 401, Interstate 40 and secondary roads will become more congested in the coming years, he said.
Clayton Mayor Jody McLeod said the highway is too important to be delayed – or stopped.
"I think it is a little disappointing because they are missing the big picture," McLeod said of Garner.
Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said he doesn't care about the regional implications as long as the town is spared the hardship created by the red route.
"If Garner's action kills the project, we'll have to live with that and maybe beg forgiveness," Williams said. "It's about Garner. I repeat myself, I repeat myself. We're going to stand up for Garner."
Mayor Dick Sears of nearby Holly Springs said he's confident the rest of N.C. 540 will eventually be built, and he is supporting Garner's hard line.
"I think we need to stay together on this," Sears said.
DeWitt said other possible routes for the highway aren't feasible for study because they all would result in similar environmental impacts as the DOT's preferred "orange route." An endangered species of mussels had been discovered in a creek along that route.
"I guess it's easy to say this, but some short-term pain here, long term, will help move the project forward," he said.
The southeast portion of N.C. 540 would extend the Triangle Expressway – currently under construction in southwest Wake County – and complete the loop highway around Raleigh. Construction could begin as early as 2018.