NC gets go-ahead for work on Monroe Bypass

The Monroe Bypass – considered by some as the highway to the beach and others as a $800 million waste – was given the green light this week from the federal government.

The Federal Highway Administration has approved the N.C. Department of Transportation’s latest environmental study for the highway, clearing the way for the DOT to move ahead with the project.

The bypass is designed to ease congestion on U.S. 74 in Union County and would run along U.S. 74 near the Mecklenburg County line and I-485, go east, then roughly parallel U.S. 74 until it reconnects with the highway west of Marshville.

Crawling along parts of U.S. 74, one of North Carolina’s only roads that stretches from the mountains to the beach, is a given for local residents, commuters and truckers.

Initial work on the bypass – right-of-way purchases, permitting work and developing a final design – could start in two weeks, said DOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson.

“Actual construction could start as early as late this year or in the beginning of 2015,” Thompson said. Construction is expected to take at least three years.

But state officials still need two permits before they can start building, and a group opposed to the highway said it likely will sue again to stop construction.

The project has been on hold since the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill sued to stop bypass construction and won the support of a federal appellate court in May 2012.

The SELC argued that the DOT’s original environmental study was flawed, and state officials submitted a new plan last year.

Plans for the bypass have been around, in one form or another, for several decades in Union County.

Union County commissioners Vice Chairman Jerry Simpson called it a great day for the county. He said the federal decision “is not a minute too soon. We need to move forward.”

He said the bypass is vital for the county’s economic development and ability to recruit companies. In fact, commissioners have called the congestion along U.S. 74 the top deterrent to businesses coming to the county.

But Stallings Mayor Pro Tem Walt Kline said there are better ways to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. He supports the Town Council resolution opposing the bypass and says there are other, less costly ways to improve traffic in the area.

“If this (bypass) was so viable, why isn’t it already built?” he asked.

Before construction can happen, the DOT must get a wetlands permit and a water-quality permit.

And the SELC could try again to block the effort. Kym Hunter of the SELC said she still has concerns about whether the DOT has fully accounted for the impacts of the bypass.

“We still have concerns about their analysis of growth,” Hunter said. “We have more concerns about their traffic forecasts.”

Hunter said the bypass won’t improve traffic congestion on U.S. 74. She said the state recently made improvements to the road that weren’t included in the most recent traffic analysis.

Pat Kahle, president of the Union County Chamber of Commerce, said she is hopeful the bypass can finally proceed. She said the new highway will ease traffic problems along U.S. 74 and help businesses along that route attract residents who have long avoided the highway.