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Let’s pass on the Monroe Bypass

By Lynda Paxton
Special to the Observer

Local support for the proposed Monroe Bypass is waning as people have learned more about the specifics of the project and it’s about time.

I have closely followed the progression of the Bypass project over the past eight years, both as mayor of Stallings and also as a vice chair of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning organization responsible for transportation planning in the Charlotte area. My eyes were not really opened to the true nature of the project until 2012, however, when three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that NCDOT had knowingly misled the public during its environmental review.

After the court ruling I started to dig into the documents and ask questions of NCDOT. It quickly became clear that the road, with its $900 million price tag, was never intended to benefit those of us in Union County.

Union County residents want relief from the congestion on U.S. 74 and many mistakenly believe that is what the bypass will provide. Unfortunately even NCDOT admits, albeit in confusing language, that the Bypass is not going to achieve that.

In its recently published environmental document, NCDOT explains that the purpose of the Bypass is not to improve congestion in Union County for local residents, but rather, to help travelers form outside the county to get through it more quickly.

The first question is whether there is even a need behind this stated purpose? Despite being willing to spend almost a billion dollars, NCDOT has never looked at who is traveling in the corridor – where are people coming from and where are they going?

Without knowing who is going where we can’t tell how successful the Bypass will be and we certainly cannot tell what, if any, impact the new road will have on the congested roads in Union County.

There is an ardent hope in Union County that the Bypass will take truck traffic off U.S. 74 and create a more pleasant, safe drive for local travelers. But again, there are no data to support this hope. Staff reports from 2011 acknowledge that trucking companies are “split” about whether they will use the Bypass – and with a proposed toll of over $10 per truck, that is hardly surprising. Worse, NCDOT’s own data show if the Bypass is built truck traffic around my home town of Stallings is actually expected to increase significantly.

The real problem with NCDOT’s purpose is that it precludes any true consideration of how a combination of lower-cost, small scale improvements to Union County roads could be implemented in a way that would benefit our community.

This is particularly disappointing because recent minor improvements to U.S. 74 have demonstrated significant gains in travel speeds and time savings. Additional strategies looking at “superstreet” designs, overpasses and the consolidation of driveways could provide real benefits – but such ideas have been disregarded.

By contrast NCDOT’s most recent figures about the Bypass reveal a diminishing return on investment. While costs have escalated, the benefits in terms of time savings have dropped. Original estimates of time saving benefits were for 20-30 minutes. Now it is 8-12 minutes. That is a cost of about $100 million per minute saved.

It is no wonder that there is waning support within the county for the project. Four towns’ boards have unanimously adopted resolutions supporting alternatives to the Bypass. These boards understand the serious restraints for transportation funding and have issued a call for more responsible prioritization and spending.

And who’s standing on the other side? Vocal support for the project is coming primarily from Boggs Paving, one of the contractors signed up to make millions for building the project. The company has 29 federal indictments pending for fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. Surprisingly, NCDOT has paid Boggs for activities to promote the Bypass. At NCDOT’s recent public comment period for the proposed highway, Boggs offered free BBQ sandwiches to anyone who would sign a petition in support of the project.

It is time to start thinking about what is best for Union County and stop listening to the self-interested. Let’s cut our losses and take this project off the books once and for all. Replace this “Pork Parkway” with improvements to Highway 74 and other roads that will benefit our local residents and the broader region.

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