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Law center criticizes review of planned I-77 toll lanes

A public interest law firm that helped delay the $725 million Monroe Connector-Bypass last year is raising concerns about the state’s environmental review of planned Interstate 77 toll lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville.

In a recent 21-page letter to the N.C. Department of Transportation in Raleigh, the Southern Environmental Law Center calls the review “rushed” and “threadbare.” It says the state’s environmental assessment is so inadequate that it fails to meet requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal and state laws needed to eventually get the $550 million project permitted.

The center wrote the letter on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper and Clean Air Carolina.

“Our position is that we don’t necessarily oppose this project; it’s more the way the assessment was done, or not done,” law center staff attorney Kym Hunter, who wrote the letter, told the Observer this week.

The review fails to analyze the project’s environmental impact beyond 2017, the same year the toll lanes are scheduled to open, the law center wrote. The center found no other highway project in the country with such a short planning horizon.

The Federal Highway Administration recommends a 20- to 30-year time horizon, for instance, and I-85’s widening northeast of Charlotte used a 35-year horizon, the law center wrote.

“By only looking out four years into the future, the EA makes it impossible for the public to fully evaluate whether it’s wise to sign a 50-year contract and what that contract should look like,” the letter states.

The state remains on track to sign a 50-year contract with a winning bidder by year’s end, Jamille Robbins of the N.C. DOT in Raleigh told the Observer recently. That company will finance, design, build and operate the lanes. The contract would be for 50 years so the contractor could recoup its investment, state officials have said.

The project calls for adding two toll lanes on northbound and southbound I-77 between Brookshire Freeway in Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One toll lane would continue in each direction from Exit 28 to Exit 36.

State officials have said they don’t know how much the toll rate would be but that it would vary depending on traffic congestion.

Robbins said the state is putting together a letter in reply to the law center’s concerns. The center’s concerns won’t delay the state’s timetable, he added.

In its letter, the center also criticized the state’s review for failing to assess the impact of the toll lanes on other roads that could see additional traffic as a result of the tolls.

By failing to look at traffic forecasts and land use patterns beyond 2017, the review also fails to consider important alternatives to widening I-77, the center wrote. Alternatives include commuter rail and traffic management measures such as signal timing at freeway on-ramps.

Because the planning horizon is so limited, the law center wrote, the review fails to determine the project’s impact on air and water quality, including Irwin Creek in Charlotte and the Catawba River watershed.

The review also ignores the impact of new or planned Charlotte-area projects, the center wrote, including the baseball Triple-A Charlotte Knights’ BB&T Stadium opening in uptown next year, the planned nearby Gateway Station and the Langtree at the Lake mixed-use community that’s under construction at I-77 Exit 31 in southern Iredell County, on Lake Norman.

Kurt Naas, founder of the Lake Norman-area citizens group Widen I-77, which opposes the toll lanes, said the state has ignored significant public opposition to the project for months and has been “simply going through the motions of the required public involvement process.” The law center is saying, “Enough,” he said.

The law center will await the state’s response before considering legal action, Hunter said. The Monroe Connector-Bypass, meanwhile, has been in legal limbo since a court in 2012 agreed with the center that federal and state agencies illegally failed to consider and disclose to the public the potential sprawl-inducing impacts of the 20-mile project.

Marusak: 704-987-3670; Twitter: @ jmarusak.
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