The N.C. Department of Transportation took an unusual step last week, sending postcards to more than 50,000 residents telling them the proposed Garden Parkway toll road is dead.
“This project is not included in the 2016-2025 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP),” the postcard said. “All activities for this project, as currently planned, have stopped.”
The Garden Parkway is a proposed toll road that would sweep through southern Gaston County. It would cross the Catawba River and connect with Interstate 485 south of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
The project has been controversial, with boosters saying it would better connect Gastonia with Charlotte and create jobs. Opponents have said it’s a boondoggle, and that the roughly $700 million toll road isn’t needed.
The postcard was sent to property owners in Gaston and Mecklenburg who are along the route.
DOT said the General Assembly’s new ranking system for highway projects – the Strategic Transportation Investments law – affected the parkway.
“The project scored poorly and therefore moved down on the list of projects for potential construction funding,” DOT said in the post card.
DOT said that legislators ended the parkway’s $35 million annual funding, and the local transportation planning organization removed the project from its 10-year plan last year.
“I have never seen anything like it – that’s a lot of postcards,” said William Toole, an attorney and former Belmont City Council member who opposes the project.
Toole said he believes DOT wants to “clear the deck” of projects that aren’t going to be built.
He also said he thinks DOT wants to signify the end of the project to have a lawsuit over the highway dismissed. The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill has sued to stop the parkway, saying the environmental impact statement was flawed.
“They can say, ‘This case needs to be dismissed because the Garden Parkway is dead,’ ” Toole said.
Kym Hunter of the SELC said her organization’s lawsuit is over the parkway’s environmental impact statement, not the parkway itself. Until DOT rescinds the environmental forecast, the lawsuit remains, she said.
It’s possible a new bridge could still be built over the Catawba River, however.
The Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization has discussed the Catawba Crossings project, which proposes to construct a road on a new location from I-485 to N.C. 279.
That project must be scored and ranked as part of the state’s new funding formula.
“The river crossing is a must to help the traffic in that eastern part of the county,” said Gaston commissioner Joe Carpenter, a Garden Parkway supporter. “There are over 12,000 cars in the southern part of the county that go up to Belmont just to go across the river. That is really the jam up on I-85.”
DOT is moving forward on the Monroe Connector/Bypass, a new toll road in Union County that’s scheduled to open in 2018. The Interstate 77 express toll lane project is also under construction and is scheduled to open in 2018.