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House panel gives new life to Garden Parkway

RALEIGH Supporters of the proposed Garden Parkway won a surprise legislative victory Thursday, though one opponent vowed that “the fight is far from over.”

The House Finance Committee added the parkway and a controversial Outer Banks bridge project to Gov. Pat McCrory’s transportation bill – over the objections of bill supporters and parkway opponents.

By a 17-11 vote, the panel added the parkway, the Mid-Currituck Bridge and Cape Fear Skyway to the bill.

GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, who’s pushing the measure, argued against the amendment. He said the projects, like other transportation proposals, would be reviewed on merit.

McCrory has touted the plan as one that would use objective criteria such as economic need, not politics, to determine the best use of transportation dollars.

State Rep. Paul Tine, a Kitty Hawk Democrat, argued that his amendment would ensure that the projects get done. The state already has invested at least some money in them.

“I’m only asking that we complete these investments in areas with very high unemployment,” he told the committee.

Tine’s move was preceded by an organized email campaign from supporters of the Mid-Currituck Bridge, who flooded lawmakers’ in-boxes this week.

But the parkway also had its supporters. Republican Rep. Andy Wells of Hickory said the parkway would offer a more direct link to Charlotte from Catawba County.

The proposed 22-mile toll road would span the Catawba River near Charlotte Douglas International Airport and run from Interstate 485 through Gaston County to Interstate 85 near Bessemer City. Its price tag: $900 million.

Critics say the road would increase congestion, not relieve it. And they say it would result in more jobs going to York County, S.C.

Republican Rep. Dana Bumgardner of Gastonia told the committee that he’s introduced bills to kill the parkway.

“The voters in Gaston County have wanted closure on this for a long time,” he said. “There’s been some money spent and this needs to stop because we’re wasting money on this.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill has sued to stop the road, contending that the federally required Environmental Impact Statement was flawed. The law center has successfully sued to stop, or at least slow, construction of the Charlotte area’s other toll road, the Monroe Connector-Bypass.

The committee vote “sort of makes a mockery of the whole bill,” said Kym Hunter, an attorney with the law center. “The bill’s about taking politics out, and we’ve just seen it all come crashing back in.”

The legislation, with the amendment, goes to the House Appropriations Committee and eventually, the Senate.

Charlotte lawyer Jim Walker, a longtime parkway opponent, said “the fight is far from over.”

Bumgardner said with the addition of the parkway and bridge projects, supporters “just killed the bill.” The Senate has already voted to take the projects out of a separate bill.

The amendment passed with the support of several Republicans in addition to virtually all Democrats on the committee. Brawley said he was surprised.

“It was completely unrelated to the purpose of the transportation plan,” he said.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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