The multi-year fight over the Monroe Expressway is over.
The Southern Environmental Law Center announced Monday that its client, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, has reached a settlement with the N.C. Department of Transportation to conserve some land near the highway.
Under the agreement, the DOT said it would deposit $1 million with the Catawba Lands Conservancy, which will use the money to buy land in Union County. The groups will be prohibited from filing new litigation about the project.
The Monroe Expressway, also known as the Monroe Bypass, is a 20-mile toll road under construction. It will parallel U.S. 74 and allow motorists to avoid stop-and-go traffic through Monroe.
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The law center and environmentalists have said the highway will lead to sprawl, and that improvements planned for U.S. 74 will make the toll road unnecessary.
In 2012, the law center won a lawsuit that forced the DOT to stop work on the expressway after the Fourth Circuit Court Appeals found the state did its environmental impact statement incorrectly.
The DOT re-did its analysis. It received permission to begin work again on the highway, and the SELC sued again.
This year, however, the DOT won two court decisions over the highway. The most recent was a January decision by the Fourth Circuit Court Appeals, which said the highway could proceed.
The DOT hopes the expressway can open in 2019.
“The same special interest groups that repeatedly try to block critical transportation projects across the state, including the Bonner Bridge, lost this battle to prevent the Monroe Expressway from moving forward,” the DOT said in a statement. “Under the terms of the settlement, the groups are prohibited from filing additional lawsuits against the project, allowing construction of the Monroe Bypass to continue with an expected completion in 2019.”
Catawba Lands Conservancy was not part of the lawsuits. But the group is acting as a neutral third party to identify suitable land to be preserved, according to a news release.
“We regret that the unnecessary, expensive Monroe Bypass project is moving forward,” said Will Scott of the Yadkin Riverkeeper in a statement. “At the same time, we are pleased to have secured this important funding from NCDOT which will be dedicated to protecting special, vulnerable lands in the bypass’s vicinity for decades to come.”