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DOT Memo Criticizes Chamber's Garden Parkway Study

Each side of the debate over the Garden Parkway has seized on very different claims about how the proposed toll road will affect jobs in Gaston County. WFAE's Julie Rose reports now on a newly-released internal memo that shows what government officials think about the claims. 

Transportation officials are in a pickle. They want to build the Garden Parkway, but their own analysis concludes there would be more jobs in Gaston County if the road were not built. That's because the Garden Parkway would spur more development in nearby South Carolina.

This is a crucial point for opponents of the Garden Parkway, like Belmont City Councilman Bill Toole. "We're talking about spending a billion dollars of taxpayer money on a project that isn't gonna bring value to the county or to the state," says Toole. "That's wrong."

But there's another study that predicts the opposite - 18,000 new jobs for Gaston County over the next 25 years. Economist John Connaughton was paid $35,000 by the Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce to do that study.

How could there be such a big difference in projections for the Garden Parkway? Here's the public answer from North Carolina Department of Transportation spokeswoman Reid Simons: "We just think that these are very different studies (with) different methodologies and assumptions that evaluate very different study areas." "There's really not a lot of meaningful comparison we can make here," adds Simons.

But among themselves, transportation officials did make pretty pointed comparisons. A DOT memo released in response to an open records request by the Southern Environmental Law Center says Connaughton's report provides "no basis or rationale" for its fundamental assumptions of population growth and job creation. The DOT memo concludes Connaughton's methodologies and analysis were neither strong nor scrutinized sufficiently.

Connaughton declined to comment, but Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce President John Kimbrell defended him. "Infrastructure creates jobs and so we're very confident that the report that Dr. Connaughton did is done accurately and it is good for economic development," says Kimbrell. Which is why the Chamber cites Connaughton's findings as "fact" in promotional materials aimed at convincing lawmakers to maintain funding for the Garden Parkway.