DOT: Legislative action jeopardizes Wake highway project

Posted March 9, 2011 5:37 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2011 7:07 p.m. EST

— Bills designed to prevent the state Department of Transportation from building an extension of the Triangle Expressway through Garner could kill the entire project, DOT officials said Wednesday.

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority is selecting a path to complete N.C. Highway 540 in southeastern Wake County. A final decision isn't expected until late 2013.

The authority in November recommended that the so-called "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.

Federal transportation officials said, however, that the route must remain under consideration because an endangered species of mussels had been discovered in a creek along the original planned expansion area, known as the "orange route."

DOT officials say the two routes are the only feasible corridors at this point for the N.C. 540 extension. In order to get an environmental permit and begin construction, the Army Corps of Engineers requires that both routes be studied.

"We've got to go through these studies, and we don't have an option if the option is to move forward," said Steve DeWitt, chief engineer for the Turnpike Authority.

DOT officials have pledged to Garner officials that, if federal highway officials select the red route for the highway, the state won't build it.

"It would be an awful route to ever build, and we don't intend to do that," DeWitt said.

Roland Beauchaine, whose house would be split in two by the red route, said he doesn't trust the DOT to stick to that pledge.

"It's not legally binding. They can change their minds," Beauchaine said.

Sens. Richard Stevens and Dan Blue and Reps. Rosa Gill, Darren Jackson and Deborah Ross, whose districts include Garner, introduced legislation last week that would prohibit the red route from being used.

The Senate is expected to consider Senate Bill 165 on Thursday.

That measure and House Bill 225 both stipulate that the Triangle Expressway’s southeast extension “shall not be located north of an existing protected corridor established by the Department of Transportation circa 1995, except in the area of Interstate 40 East.”

The southeast extension of N.C. 540 will 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.

Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams called the red route "a bombshell," saying economic development in the town could stall because businesses fear being wiped out by future highway construction.

"It's almost like a tsunami is going to hit Garner," Williams said.

Eliminating the route from any study or future consideration remains the mayor's top priority, even if it means Garner would never have access to N.C. 540.

"If it gets rid of the project totally, we'll just have to deal with it," he said.

Beauchaine said he would rather have no highway loop as well, but he remains optimistic.

"I do believe that, when the pressure comes and gets applied, they will find a solution," he said.