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Environmental groups file suit over Monroe Bypass

Three environmental groups sued state and federal highway agencies Monday over the proposed Monroe Bypass, claiming the agencies distorted the purpose and impact of the $838 million project.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Charlotte, names the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The federal agency approved the latest environmental study of the bypass in May.

The 20-mile toll road is designed to ease congestion on U.S. 74 in Union County, familiar to many Charlotte-area drivers as a stop-and-go section of the route to the beach. The project’s been discussed for decades.

The environmental groups say DOT touted the bypass as relieving congestion U.S. 74 while internally concluding no improvement was expected.

“DOT has not taken into consideration new data on what conditions are in the (U.S. 74) corridor,” said Kym Hunter, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Those changes include traffic volumes that have remained flat for a decade and improving average travel speeds, the lawsuit states.

The law center filed the lawsuit on behalf of Clean Air Carolina, the Yadkin Riverkeeper and the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

DOT said it will continue to seek state and federal permits for the bypass, noting that the courts haven’t forced a halt to work on the project.

“The need for the project is great,” the department said in a statement. “Drivers must travel through 27 intersections with traffic signals within a 23-mile section of U.S. 74, which impacts traffic flow. The result is that the U.S. 74 corridor is heavily congested.

“The Monroe Bypass will significantly improve mobility in the area by giving motorists a high-speed alternative to U.S. 74. With traffic able to move consistently at 65 miles per hour, drivers will have a more reliable way to reach their destinations safely and efficiently.”

The advocacy groups say the state’s environmental review of the project, approved by the federal agency, didn’t adequately analyze effects on air and water pollution and endangered species.

A federal appeals court reached a similar conclusion in 2012, forcing DOT to revise the environmental study last year. “We’re asking that they do redo it properly,” Hunter said.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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