Environmental groups that are suing state and federal transportation agencies over the proposed construction of the Monroe Bypass have asked a federal judge to halt any new work on the project until the lawsuit is settled.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of three clients, on May 14 filed a motion in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. The action came after the North Carolina Department of Transportation gave the go-ahead to its contractor, Monroe Bypass Constructors LLC, to resume construction following the issuance of final environmental permits.
Meanwhile, five current and former executives at one of the three companies that constitute Monroe Bypass Constructors are one step closer to being sentenced for their part in a conspiracy to defraud the federal government. Sentencing dates have not been scheduled, but May 15 was the deadline for their attorneys to file objections to pre-sentence investigation reports.
The proposed 19.7-mile toll road running north of and roughly parallel to U.S. 74 in Union County has been in the works for nearly 20 years. It has been delayed by route alterations, the study of potential impacts on the habitat of the federally endangered Carolina heelsplitter mussel, and extended periods of litigation and report preparation. Its price tag now is estimated to be $840 million, including construction, design, right-of-way, utilities and inspection.
In response to questions, the DOT said the “contractor has begun installing orange fencing to designate permitted areas, is completing surveying needed for clearing and preparing subcontractors to mobilize for additional work. By next week, (the) contractor may begin clearing and grubbing, erosion control installation, utility construction and installing right-of-way fencing in certain locations” outside of the areas covered by state and federal water quality permits. The work is being done on the easternmost section of the project, 2 miles west of Monroe Ansonville Road to U.S. 74 in Marshville.
In addition, the DOT has completed the purchase of 116 land parcels and reached a settlement on another 87. The total number it needs to acquire for the road construction is 484.
The state Department of Transportation says the bypass is necessary to ease congestion on I-74 in and around Monroe and to provide a high-speed alternative route from Charlotte to southeast North Carolina.
“As the area continues to grow, this critical highway option will be key to helping move people and products across the region,” said a statement from the DOT when the law center filed suit last June. The statement noted that there are 27 intersections with traffic signals in a 23-mile section.
However, the environmental groups argue that population growth for that immediate area is not currently expected to meet projections made when the road was conceived, and that minor improvements along the stretch have in recent years significantly increased the average speed cars travel.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Clean Air Carolina, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and Yadkin Riverkeeper.
The lawsuit claims that the state DOT, DOT Secretary Anthony J. Tata, the Federal Highway Administration and FHWA Division Administrator John F. Sullivan violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. That act requires agencies working on large projects that receive federal funding to research the proposed projects’ potential environmental impacts, and weigh the benefits and costs of preferred action against possible alternative actions.
The groups were successful in a previous challenge, which resulted in the agencies having to rewrite the required environmental impact statement.
The transportation agencies issued their original report in May 2010, and in August of that year made the decision to move forward with construction of the bypass. The environmental groups filed suit Nov. 2.
The DOT then signed a construction contract Nov. 21 with Monroe Bypass Constructors, a partnership including Boggs Paving Inc. of Monroe. In July 2013, Boggs’ president, four other employees and a trucking company and its owner were indicted on a combined 30 federal charges stemming from fraudulent claims that the trucking company, a minority-owned subcontractor, performed a portion of the work on $87.6 million worth of road construction contracts in North and South Carolina between January 2003 and December 2012.
All of the defendants have since pleaded guilty to either one or two charges and are awaiting sentencing. The Boggs Paving employees convicted were President and Co-Owner Carl Andrew “Drew” Boggs III of Waxhaw; Vice President Greg Miller of Matthews; former Vice president Greg Tucker of Oakboro; former CFO Kevin Hicks of Monroe; and former Project Manager Arnold Mann of Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Also pleading guilty was John “Styx” Cuthbertson, owner of Cuthbertson Trucking Co. Inc. of Wingate, a certified disadvantaged business enterprise. The federal government often requires that large contracts include a portion of work subcontracted to small or minority-owned businesses. The government charged that Cuthbertson did not perform any work, but received $375,000 from Boggs Paving as a kickback.
Although Boggs Paving has since been prevented from bidding on state and federal contracts, it has remained a member of the partnership contracted to build the Monroe Bypass, and Drew Boggs is still listed as the registered agent for Monroe Bypass Constructors in documents filed with the N.C. Department of the Secretary of State. The other two companies are United Infrastructure Group Inc. of Great Falls, South Carolina, and Anderson Columbia Co. Inc. of Lake City, Florida.
Since bypass construction was suspended in May 2012 following a U.S. appeals court decision in favor of the environmental groups, Monroe Bypass Constructors has received $19.7 million. That included $2.1 million for suspension-related costs and $17.6 million for contract work. The DOT is making those payments to compensate the companies because they had hired additional workers for the project and were ready to being construction when the project was halted.
In the court decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the transportation agencies failed to disclose the environmental reports’ “underlying assumptions” and “falsely responded” to public concerns about the data they used to estimate traffic flow.
The appeals court found that data the agencies used to project traffic volume if the road were not built actually supposed that the road was built, based on land that would be opened up to commercial and residential development.
In its most recent lawsuit, the Southern Environmental Law Center says that the agencies still have failed to incorporate accurate data into its report and to consider the cumulative impacts of other nearby highway projects, including the widening of Interstate 485 and Independence Boulevard in south Charlotte.