Charlotte Observer: Federal Doubts Could Delay, Or Doom, Monroe Connector-Bypass
Concerned that the state may not have been truthful about the environmental impact of the proposed Monroe Connector-Bypass, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has withdrawn, for now, its approval of the project. The decision could delay or even jeopardize the $800 million toll road. U.S. Fish and Wildlife approval is critical. Without it, the highway can't be built. At issue is whether the N.C. Turnpike Authority did an accurate study of how building the road would affect the Carolina heelsplitter, a federally endangered mussel. The Turnpike Authority was required to do what's known as a "build vs. no-build study." It examines what would happen to traffic, population growth and the environment if highways are built, or not. Three environmental groups have alleged that when the Turnpike Authority did its "no-build" study, it used data projecting that the bypass was already in place. Not surprisingly, the study showed little impact from the road's construction. The N.C. Department of Transportation, which works with the Turnpike Authority, told the Observer in March that it used data projecting the highway had been built. But it said its engineers had adjusted their work but their conclusions hadn't changed. The Fish and Wildlife Service in Asheville thinks differently. In a letter sent to the authority Aug. 18, the service expressed doubts on how "a fair comparison can be made" unless the authority assumes the road won't be built. It said after the authority submits a "new analysis," it would review it, and make a new determination. "This letter substantiates one of our claims," said Chandra Taylor of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, which has filed a lawsuit to stop the project. "We think this shows the agencies were misleading the public." Turnpike Authority spokesperson Reid Simons said the state stands behind the project. "We are reviewing their request for clarification," Simons said. "NCTA remains committed to the project and stands by the integrity of the studies." When asked by the Observer if the authority would provide the "new analysis" federal officials say they want, Simons said the authority would be "gathering information, but no new analysis would be done." She added: The authority "expects a positive dialogue in the next couple of days." The authority had planned to begin construction on the 22-mile toll road as soon as a federal judge decides the lawsuit, which could come later this fall. The highway would link to Interstate 485 in southeast Mecklenburg and run parallel to U.S. 74. It would give motorists a speedy way to avoid congested U.S. 74, a popular beach route for thousands of Carolina families every year. The bypass would be the Charlotte area's first toll road. The law center said the state never seriously considered cheaper alternatives, such as improving the existing highway. The Turnpike Authority is also planning to build the Garden Parkway in Gaston County, another controversial project. Critics of that toll road have alleged that the authority manipulated a federally required study to make job losses appear less severe. The authority has denied that charge. Clarification sought In its letter to the Transit Authority, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it had "repeatedly" asked for clarification on whether the bypass impact studies are correct. But after reviewing statements made by the authority in the lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it believes the authority contradicted itself. In researching the highway, environmental lawyers said they became curious when the build/no-build scenarios showed little difference in how many miles people would drive if the toll road were built or not. On Dec. 2, 2009, authority engineer Jennifer Harris' handwritten notes state that the data used "assumes the Monroe project in place." Nine months later, in 2010, the authority told the federal government something different. It wrote in its Environmental Impact Statement: "Traffic Analysis Zone socioeconomic forecasts for the No Build Scenario did not include the Monroe Connector." The law center said one of its attorneys last year asked Harris whether the bypass was included in the no-build data. Harris never wrote back, according to an email obtained under the state's public records law. She did, however, forward the email to a colleague, with this one-line message. The email had a commonly used emoticon - a semi-colon and a parentheses ; ) - that resembles a wink. The state has said that the emoticon was an innocent message, and not meant to conceal anything.