Federal Court Delays Monroe Bypass, Sides With Environmentalists
The planned $700 million Monroe Connector-Bypass is in doubt after the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond Thursday ruled in favor of environmental groups who had sued to stop construction. The court, in an unanimous ruling, said the N.C. Department of Transportation and other agencies "failed to disclose critical assumptions....and instead provided the public with incorrect information." The DOT violated federal policy that requires detailed environmental impact analysis for new highways, the court found. The state had planned to begin construction on the toll road later this year. Now the N.C. Turnpike Authority, an arm of the state DOT, may have to re-do its impact analysis and apply for new permits, which could take years. "They are back to square one," said David Farren, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, which was sued to stop the highway on behalf of several environmental groups. "The court found fundamental flaws in their analysis. And they found they weren't forthcoming with public." The toll road is designed to serve as a bypass around congested U.S. 74 in Union County. The state was required to do a study comparing the impacts of building the highway against what would happen if they toll road wasn't build. That is known as a "build vs no build" study. The Southern Environmental Law Center charged that the state didn't do the study correctly. When doing its "no build" analysis, the Law Center alleged that the state used data showing the toll road had already been built. That resulted in a "build vs. build" study, which showed minimal impacts from the highway. The DOT and Turnpike Authority said some mistakes had been made, but argued that the problems were minor and that its engineers had fixed them. The 4th Circuit said the study was flawed. In its opinion, it wrote the agencies "incorporated 'build' assumptions into the 'no build' baseline." It also said the agencies "either failed to address the underlying issue or incorrectly stated that the Monroe Connector was not factored into the 'no build' baseline." N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said in a statement that his agency is reviewing the ruling with legal and environmental experts. "While this ruling will cause delays, it does not mean the project will not move forward," he said. "We hope to have a new plan and timeline developed and released to the public within the next few weeks." The DOT could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.