Local News

DOT, Sierra Club Clash Over Outer Loop Road Project

Posted July 31, 2002 9:17 a.m. EDT

— Plans to reduce traffic congestion in the Triangle are causing a clash between road builders and road opponents. While environmentalists said the Interstate 540 Outer Loop is out of the loop when it comes to solving traffic problems, the Department of Transportation said the area's biggest road project will be a big help to commuters as each leg opens.

The Sierra Club said I-540 is a magnet for sprawl, pollution and traffic trouble.

"Congestion will eventually overtake the outer loop," said Bob Wasson, a Sierra Club member.

Club members said the Outer Loop is on their nationwide list of road projects and the millions of dollars spent on the loop should be poured into more bus routes and commuter rail service.

"It's not saying, 'Don't ever build another road, don't ever drive a car.' It's none of that stuff," said Sierra Club's Allen Spalt. "It's 'let's marginally change things so that we're moving in a better direction.' If we start moving in that direction, people will like it."

According to officials, liking it seems to be the problem. Studies show that in the morning rush on I-40, nine out of every 10 cars only have one person on board. Also, studies show bus ridership is relatively low.

After reviewing the Sierra Club's anti-540 charts and graphs, DOT division engineer Jon Nance said the Outer Loop gives drivers options and disputes the notion that it will cause more air pollution. He also said it is important to match the road to the people.

"You have to look at the mindset and what the priorities are for people in this area. Will they give up a 30- to 45-minute commute and ride on a bus or a train and, again, trade out some of the conveniences that right now they enjoy?" Nance said.

For now, construction on the Outer Loop is moving forward. The next leg of I-540 to Capital Boulevard will open Aug. 13. The Sierra Club is continuing to suggest otherwise.

The DOT points out that even if it wanted to it could not divert Outer Loop funds to mass transit. Millions in federal dollars for I-540 are specifically earmarked for urban loop roads.