The proposed Garden Parkway in Gaston County suffered a significant setback this week, when the state said it would withdraw applications for two environmental permits needed to build the toll road.
The N.C. Department of Transportation, in a July 10 letter, said the threat of litigation from environmental groups made it prudent to pull back.
Without state and federal water-quality permits, the $800 million project cant be built. The state had hoped to begin construction in 2013, but there have been signs that the DOT is cooling to the controversial project.
In May, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled against the state in a case involving another toll project, the Monroe Connector/Bypass. The court, in scathing language, found the states federally required environmental impact studies flawed, just as the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill claimed in litigation.
David Farren of the law center said Wednesday that the states decision to withdraw its permit applications suggests that similar flaws exist in the Garden Parkway environmental studies.
In 30 years of practicing law, Ive never seen someone drop a permit application because they might get sued, Farren said. There are defects in the Garden Parkway study that are similar to what the court found deficient with Monroe.
Greer Beaty, a spokesperson for the N.C. DOT, said the state is withdrawing its applications because its the best thing for residents along the parkway route.
The stops and starts, the pauses and the breaks (in the road-building process) all of that is very hard on people, she said.
The DOT needs water-quality permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. In its letter, the DOT said it would resubmit its applications in the future, but under the threat of litigation, it didnt want them to be in limbo.
Boom or boondoggle?
The Garden Parkway is one of the states most controversial road projects.
If built, the 22-mile bypass around Gastonia would sweep through south Gaston County and create a new bridge over the Catawba River. It would connect with Interstate 485 south of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
But the highway has been criticized as a boondoggle, and the states own studies show it would do little to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 85. When he first became the states transportation secretary in 2009, Gene Conti questioned whether it made sense to build the road.
But the highway has been pushed by a number of business leaders in Gaston County, who believe it would spark an economic boom in the southern part of the county.
In June, the DOT had said it didnt need money this year for the Garden Parkway because it expected the project to be delayed by litigation.
That alarmed parkway supporters, and caused Gov. Bev Perdues office to alter a letter from DOT chief operating officer Jim Trogdon. A letter sent to legislators, from Trogdon, was changed to say that the DOT needed the Garden Parkway money a fact that Trogdon later refuted.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has charged that a federally required impact study for the Monroe Connector/Bypass was flawed. The state was supposed to conduct whats known as a build vs. no build study, which compares what would happen if the highway were built compared with what would happen if it werent built.
The law center said that when the state did the no build study it used data showing the highway was already in place. That created a build vs. build study that showed little impact from the toll roads construction.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed.
Farren said he believes there are similar flaws in the build vs. no build study for the Garden Parkway.
He said the DOTs decision to withdraw its permit applications is a face-saving effort.
Things are moving backwards on this project, he said.