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Garden Parkway Still On Track, Despite Opposition

After years of planning and public debate, the Garden Parkway is in the final stages of approval. The last comment period for the proposed toll road ends February 22nd. As it stands now, the Garden Parkway will start at I-485 south of the Charlotte airport and run 22 miles west through Gaston County up to I-85. Easing congestion is the primary goal - but the environmental impact statement also warns the road may drain jobs away from Gaston County. WFAE's Julie Rose spoke about the project with Steve DeWitt, chief engineer for the North Carolina Turnpike Authority which is responsible for building the Garden Parkway. Steve Dewitt: Thank you very much for allowing us to be on the air with you. Julie Rose: So this road will cost about $930 million, and you've estimated it may only save drivers five minutes to ten minutes on average in travel time, so there are a lot of people who think that's not enough savings to merit spending so much money. Can you explain to me why we are building this road? Steve: Sure, I would agree an improvement that would save only five, maybe ten minutes of time certainly doesn't warrant spending this kind of money, but that all depends on where you're coming from. If you're living off the I-85 corridor somewhere, and you decide to take the Garden Parkway, you in fact might save five to ten minutes; but if you live point south of there, somewhere along the South Carolina line or if you're down around on, say, the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden area, you'll save 20 to 30 minutes of time as you try to reach, for instance, where the airport is. So the timesavings is in fact very, very large if you live in an area that can benefit the most from the project. Julie: So here's the thing: certain points along the Garden Parkway will only be two lanes, that's one in each direction, and I'm trying to figure out why anyone would want to pay a toll to ride on what a lot of critics are calling a country road, essentially. Steve: Well, the majority of the project, say from 485 to 321, would be a four-lane highway, two lanes in each direction, and certainly would be a very good route for high-speed travel through the southern part of Gaston County. From 321 to 85, I'm trying to ensure that we can build the project all the way to 485 to 85, which has been a huge public concern. We've redesigned the project, in the interim years, to have only two lanes, one lane in each direction, but we would be purchased to expand it to two lanes in each direction some time in the future. Julie: What about the impact this road will have on the communities it passes through? For example, the environmental impact statement says that bringing the Garden Parkway will bring 3700 new households to communities near the road, but at the same time result in 300 fewer jobs. So, more people, less jobs. Is that an acceptable outcome for the road? Steve: Well, I don't think that's exactly portrayed correctly. Jobs could be shifted off, say, the I-85 corridor more down around where the Garden Parkway is. That very well could be true, but the real thing to keep in mind is the benefits of a road like this to a community, from a business standpoint, really come from what the local elected officials, community leaders, and so on do with a project like this. Once it's built, how do they treat land use? How do they deal with zoning issues? What kinds of recruitment do they do to industry? There's a lot of reasons to point to that this would be an economic generator and provide more jobs, in fact, than what our EIS might show. But we can't guess what local officials and so on might do with all those zoning and land use type things, so we do what we can with the information that we have, and we move forward with the EIS. Julie: What happens, though, if not enough people end up taking the Garden Parkway? If the toll revenues don't add up to the projections, and aren't enough to maintain or to repair the road. Who picks up the tab then? Steve: Well, as we go through our financing, we do what we call a sensitivity test, and we show the impacts on the revenue if the traffic is, say, 25 percent less, 50 percent less, and we believe that we've got plenty extra, if you will, built into this to ensure that if the traffic volumes are low, then we can cover that. Julie: Mr. DeWitt, the Garden Parkway is not universally loved. Thousands of people have signed a petition to stop the toll road, and city officials even in Gastonia and Belmont and other towns in the area are still skeptical to some extent about this road and whether it is the best use of regional transportation funding. Is it too late to call off the Garden Parkway? Steve: Well, you know, it's never too late until it's financed and under construction, and certainly there are folks impacted by this, as there are with any project that's built. It goes through areas where people live, and we have to be extremely sensitive to that assuming that we move forward with the project, but this project didn't come about because we at the Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Authority thought it would be a good project. The project came about because it is the highest priority for the Gaston Urban Area and Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO was comprised of local elected officials such as mayors and so on of the region, and as long as they continue to support it, we'll continue to move forward. Julie: Steve DeWitt is chief engineer for the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. Construction on the Garden Parkway is scheduled to begin this fall. Mr. DeWitt, thanks for your time. Steve: Thank you very much.