Politics & Government

Garden Parkway ranks low in new NC highway rankings

The proposed Garden Parkway fared poorly on the state’s new ranking of highway projects, but supporters of the toll road aren’t giving up.

The N.C. Department of Transportation ranked 399 projects early this month, and the Garden Parkway scored 175th. The rankings, created by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, are designed to prioritize how the state spends transportation dollars by evaluating projects based on economic development, cost and congestion relief.

Critics of the project say the ranking should doom the Garden Parkway, which would sweep through southern Gaston County and create a new bridge crossing over the Catawba River.

A proposal to widen Interstate 85 in Gaston to U.S. 321 ranked 16th, making it more likely to be built. That project – which would add one lane of traffic each way – is estimated to cost $198 million.

The Garden Parkway’s cost has been listed as high as $843 million.

“I’m not surprised (I-85) ranked so high,” said Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission. “But when you look at the parkway question, you have to step back and say common sense says that in 10 to 15 years from now, the volume of traffic (will require the building of the parkway).”

He said his group will continue to lobby for the parkway.

“When you think about this regionally, that road will also help the northern part of York County,” Hicks said. “It has some positive implications for South Carolina.”

Alison Cookson of the Gaston Regional Chamber said her group continues to support the parkway, in part to better connect the county to Charlotte. She said the toll road can accommodate trucks going to and from the recently opened intermodal facility at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Lawsuit pending

The parkway is one of the state’s most controversial highway projects.

Supporters say it would create a much-needed bridge across the Catawba River. Critics have said the project would lead to sprawl and would do little or nothing to relieve congestion on the county’s main highway, I-85.

The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill has a pending lawsuit to stop the state from continuing work on the parkway. Kym Hunter of the SELC said the parkway’s low score should make it impossible for the parkway to be built within the next 10 years, so long as the state’s funding formula isn’t changed.

The SELC believes the parkway would have fared even worse in the state rankings had the N.C. Department of Transportation used what the law center considers to be the correct cost estimate for the state.

In a letter to the state sent April 21, the law center asked why the cost of the parkway was listed as $751 million in the rankings, while the state has said in the past the cost be higher. The current project cost listed on the DOT’s website says it would cost $843 million.

“We think it would have ranked even lower,” Hunter said.

New rankings

The new ranking system replaces the 1989 Equity Formula, which distributed transportation dollars more evenly throughout the state. Charlotte officials – including McCrory, when he was the city’s mayor – said that old formula shortchanged urban areas in favor of rural regions.

The Charlotte region has a number of highway projects under construction, including the completion of Interstate 485; the widening of I-485 in south Charlotte; and improvements to Independence Boulevard.

DOT recently finished a widening project for I-85 in Cabarrus County and awarded a contract in April to extend that widening an additional 8 miles past U.S. 73.

Those projects weren’t included in the first rankings because they are already funded.

In addition to the Gaston County I-85 widening, other Charlotte-area projects that fared well include a $184 million plan to continue the widening of I-485 in south Charlotte from Rea Road to U.S. 74.

As part of that project, the state would do additional work on the section of I-485 that’s being widened from I-77 to Rea Road. The state would likely repurpose the shoulder to add a toll lane or an express lane, said Louis Mitchell, the DOT division engineer who oversees the Charlotte region.

Another project that scored high is to continue widening Independence Boulevard, from Wallace Lane to Sardis Road.

Norm Steinman of the Charlotte Department of Transportation said the city could fare well under the new formula.

“In the past, with large highway projects, especially interstates, were going to be happening very slowly because of the Equity Formula,” Steinman said. “If a project cost $300 million, it would take 30 years.”

The state is reviewing 500 more transportation projects that will be added to the list.

One project that is being graded is a $1 billion plan to widen Interstate 77 in south Charlotte, from uptown to the South Carolina state line.

The Monroe Connector/Bypass, which has also been tied up in litigation, was not ranked as part of the new formula.

The SELC has argued that the proposed bypass should have been subject to the same scrutiny as all other highway projects. The law center has successfully sued to stop construction, but the N.C. DOT has resubmitted an Environmental Impact Statement and hopes to get approval from the federal government this spring or summer to start work on the project.