US Fish And Wildlife Service Waffles On Monroe Bypass
Click image to view larger map. Image from NCTurnpike.org. Federal fish and wildlife authorities appear to be having second thoughts about their approval of a proposed toll road known as the Monroe Bypass. Without that agency's approval, the 20-mile road from I-485 to Marshville cannot be built. For nearly a year, environmental groups have been scratching their heads over something that now seems to be bothering the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, too. "It never made sense how such a huge project could have been determined to have almost no environmental impact when compared with not building the project," says Chan Chandra Taylor with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Taylor represents three environmental groups suing to stop the Monroe Bypass from being built. The groups say state officials assumed the highway already existed when they assessed the impacts of the "no-build" option. In other words, NC Department of Transportation engineers compared building the road with building the road, rather than comparing it to how the environment would be affected if no road were built. A spokeswoman for NC DOT says that part is true, but that it didn't affect the final results of the study which supported building the toll road. Attorney Chandra Taylor says, "It defies logic to think that you have an adequate base line when you know that baseline includes the project." And that's apparently what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started thinking late last week. Field supervisor Brian Cole sent a letter to transportation officials in Raleigh saying he thinks they misled him and asking for new analysis from the Department of Transportation. That letter created such a storm that Cole sent a new letter with a completely different tone. It arrived at the Department of Transportation office yesterday. In it, Cole apologizes for referencing the environmental lawsuit without consulting legal counsel. He says he never meant to imply that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would withdraw its support for the Monroe Bypass. WFAE asked Cole today why he sent the second letter, but he referred us to the U.S. Attorney's office, which also declined to comment. North Carolina Department of Transportation spokeswoman Reid Simons says it was all just a misunderstanding. "The information at hand is very complex, complicated modeling data - there was really no new information at that time," says Simons. "We're going to sit down with (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and show them our conclusions." Simons says that meeting will happen next week. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes away satisfied, the only thing preventing the start of construction on the Monroe Bypass is a judge's ruling in the environmental lawsuit, expected before October.