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Feds give Monroe Bypass the go-ahead

The Federal Highway Administration has given the green light to the North Carolina Department of Transportation to proceed with the construction of the 19.7-mile Monroe Bypass.

But the Southern Environmental Law Center, which successfully sued the transportation agencies over their original justification for the project, plans to challenge this decision as well, said Kym Hunter, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents Clean Air Carolina, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the Yadkin Riverkeeper.

Before construction can begin again, the DOT must work with state and federal agencies to obtain water quality permits that were rescinded following the project’s suspension two years ago, said Rick Baucom, a state DOT assistant division construction engineer and project manager for the bypass. He said that in the meantime, the agency will continue its efforts to acquire rights of way for the project and work with contractors on the road’s design.

Because of the complexity and time involved in the permitting process, Baucom said the earliest construction could resume on the proposed toll road would be the end of this year.

By that time, the agencies may have a better handle on the fate of one of the project’s primary contractors.

Boggs Paving Inc. of Monroe, five of its executives, and John “Styx” Cuthbertson and his Wingate trucking company have been indicted on a combined 29 federal fraud counts. The companies are charged with falsely claiming that Cuthbertson, a certified disadvantaged business enterprise, performed work on $87.6 million in federal contracts in North and South Carolina that Boggs was awarded on the reliance that the company would use a disadvantaged subcontractor.

The trial is set for September in the U.S. District Court’s Western District in Charlotte. Boggs is one of the companies that constitute Monroe Bypass Constructors, which was awarded the contract for the road’s construction. The other two companies that, along with Boggs formed a limited liability corporation for the project, are United Infrastructure Group Inc. of Great Falls, S.C., and Anderson Columbia Co. Inc. of Lake City, Fla.

The proposed new toll road would extend from U.S. 74 near Interstate 485 in Mecklenburg County to U.S. 74 between the towns of Marshville and Wingate in Union County, and is projected to cost $900 million. The state and representatives of many local governments have said the bypass is necessary to provide a road that enables traffic to travel at higher rates of speed than are currently available on U.S. 74 and other roads heading southeast from Charlotte.

However, since it was first proposed, opposition has been steadily increasing. Five municipalities in Union County have passed resolutions asking the state to look into other alternatives to reduce traffic congestion on U.S. 74 near and in Monroe. Those include Stallings, Hemby Bridge, Marvin, Mineral Springs and Weddington.

Supporters of the bypass say it is needed to improve connectivity between Wilmington and Charlotte and that the roadway will provide economic development opportunities to communities east of Monroe.

The Chapel Hill-based Southern Environmental Law Center has opposed the project for years due to its concerns over environmental impacts on the Yadkin River watershed and the urban sprawl that the center says the roadway would bring to the area.

In November 2010, the center sued on grounds that the project’s environmental assessment was not conducted in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

In May 2012, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the law center and suspended the project, ordering the agencies to revisit the environmental impact study, which is required any time a federal agency is involved in a project that may cause environmental damage. The court ruled that the agencies failed to disclose the “underlying assumptions” behind their decision to build the road and that the agencies “falsely” responded to public concerns about the data used.

The state Department of Transportation released the revised draft environmental report in December. On Thursday, the Federal Highway Administration announced its decision to go forward with the project as proposed.

In a statement, the DOT said it would “immediately resume purchasing right of way, conducting permitting work and developing the final design for the project.”

Before resuming its work on the bypass, Hunter said that the DOT still has to obtain two critical clean water permits, one from the federal government and one from the state.

“If they do obtain the permits, we could move to file an injunction” to stop construction, said Hunter.

“In the meantime, we urge the Department of Transportation not to extend any taxpayer resources on the project until all legal challenges have been fully resolved – including the criminal trial of the lead contractor set to build the bypass, Boggs Paving.”

 

 

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