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Residents, groups fight to get road project ditched

IN THE PATH OF CONSTRUCTION: James Black, who lives at 5813 Beverly Drive in Indian Trail, says his doctor is concerned that construction on the Monroe Connector-Bypass will kill Black, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, diabetes, emphysema and a bad heart. Photo by Tara Ramsey

A road that would bypass the congested U.S. Highway 74 eastbound to Monroe sounds like it would mean smooth sailing for motorists.

The project will cost between $750 million and $825 million to build and include 20 miles of toll road from Highway 74 and Interstate 485 in eastern Mecklenburg County to the town of Marshville in Union County.

But environmental groups are opposing the so-called Monroe Connector-Bypass because of what they say is a flawed impact analysis conducted by the state.

Then there are the life-and-death concerns of James Black.

Black’s home, at 5813 Beverly Drive, will be about 100 feet from the proposed path of the bypass.

He is on 12 medications for a laundry list of ailments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, diabetes, emphysema, a bad heart. His doctor has told him he will die if he continues living in his home while construction crews build the new road and after vehicles begin rolling on the highway.

But his property won’t be purchased by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and he said state officials have not been willing to help him.

“I used to love North Carolina,” he said. “But the way I’ve been treated during the last year and a half, I hate this state. I hate to say that I was raised here. You feel like everybody has turned their back on you. You say, ‘Please help me,’ and they won’t do it.”

Stuck with his home

Black said the North Carolina Turnpike Authority had told him and his girlfriend that it was going to purchase his home because a ramp for the road would affect the property. But a few weeks later he learned that construction plans had changed and the home would no longer be purchased by the state.

Black began sending letters to President Barack Obama, Gov. Bev Purdue, the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He’s contacted the turnpike authority, “begging them” to buy the property. He’s even written the American Civil Liberties Union. But no one is coming to his aid, he said.

The EPA responded to Black’s letter, telling him he could request that his home be purchased through a medical buyout, a program for people in similar situations. But Black said the state hasn’t agreed to that scenario.

He said North Carolina residents should be concerned that if the state won’t even take care of a disabled resident by buying his home, it’s unlikely it would take care of the environment.

Environmental concerns

The Yadkin Riverkeeper Foundation, Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina Wildlife Federation have filed a lawsuit to stop the project.

The groups claim state and federal government did not conduct an adequate environmental-impact analysis because the data they used was flawed.

The analysis is supposed to look at the impact the road would have on an area as well as what the impact would be if no road were built. But the environmental groups say the data used by transportation officials in the “no-build” option assumes the highway already exists, leading to virtually no impact expected if 20 miles of a four-lane highway were built.

The groups also claim the state only examined the impact of one-fifth of the road instead of the entire stretch.

Yadkin riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said the state is violating the Clean Water Act by continuing with plans for the bypass.

“It’s an air-quality and water-quality issue,” Naujoks said. “They’re supposed to look at direct and secondary and cumulative impacts, which are far and wide. The state has chosen not to do that, and that is ultimately our concern. I think it’s important for the public to realize the secondary and cumulative impacts are far and wide. They affect people’s drinking water supply, their health with air-quality issues. And under the law the state is supposed to address that.

“It makes bad environment health sense and bad economic sense.”

June Blotnick, director of Clean Air Carolina, agrees.

“This is 22 miles of rural land that’s going to be impacted by sprawl,” she said.

Blotnick cited a study by the NCDOT that examined alternatives to the traffic problems in the U.S. 74 corridor. The report concluded that improving existing roads and connections in the region would fix all but one of the traffic bottlenecks — for only $13.3 million.

Moving forward

Reid Simons, spokesman for the turnpike authority, said the agency is disappointed by the lawsuit. The project continues to move ahead as permits needed for financing are being finalized.

The agency hopes to receive the permits by early December before construction can begin.

“We’re confident in the integrity of the environmental studies we’ve worked on for the past four years,” Simons said. “We will rigorously defend the integrity of the study.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center said the state is “playing fast and loose” with its borrowing ability and in some cases is violating federal law “to ram the Monroe Connector/Bypass through the permitting process,” according to a statement from the group.

SELC says the project will cost nearly $1 billion and would saddle state taxpayers with debt for two generations. It estimates that commuters could pay nearly $1,300 each per year in tolls to use the bypass. Tolls are projected to cover less than half the cost, leaving taxpayers with a $24 million bill a year for up to 40 years.

While the turnpike authority moves forward with plans to build the 20-mile stretch of road, environmental groups continue their fight.

“Just because it’s hard or because there’s political pressure, they shouldn’t ignore what’s best for the citizens of North Carolina,” Naujoks said, referring to state officials. “They need to do what’s legally required to protect the public health of the people of North Carolina.”

Tara Ramsey can be reached at [email protected].

CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS: This story originally listed the wrong name for Clean Air Carolina. Also, the story should have said the Southern Environmental Law Center said the cost of the project to taxpayers will be $24 million a year for up to 40 years.

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