BRADENTON, Fla. — The Southern Environmental Law Center Tuesday filed a federal suit on behalf of conservation groups challenging North Carolina’s environmental review for the $1 billion Garden Parkway toll road.
It is the second major toll road in the state to be challenged by environmental groups. The first one was successful and stopped work on the Monroe Connector project after it was financed.
The Catawba Riverkeeper and Clean Air Carolina allege that the North Carolina Turnpike Authority and the Federal Highway Administration performed a “fundamentally flawed” analysis of the Garden Parkway similar to the way the agencies made errors in analyzing the Monroe Connector, according to the 29-page suit filed in the U.S. District Court’s Western District of North Carolina.
State and federal agencies failed to include in the Garden Parkway analysis an alternative that considered not building the road altogether in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the groups said.
The parkway requires purchasing more than 350 homes and businesses, and impacts two dozen neighborhoods, the suit said. “The toll road also would impact over eight miles of streams, including 91 stream crossings, would fragment wildlife habitat, and impact 882 acres of forest.”
Because environmental studies analyzed “building the road” against “building the road” — as opposed to against not building it — the underlying analysis of the route failed to account for “direct, indirect and cumulative” impacts that construction would create, said the complaint.
Steve Abbott, spokesman for the North Carolina Transportation Department, said the agency had not received a copy of the lawsuit by early Tuesday afternoon, and would only comment after reviewing it.
The Turnpike Authority received final federal approval of the 22-mile, limited-access Garden Parkway in late February. It would create a new toll road from Interstate 85 west of Gastonia in Gaston County to I-485 near the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Mecklenburg County.
The state anticipates financing the project with a mix of a low-interest federal loans, state-appropriation bonds, toll revenue bonds and grant anticipation revenue vehicle bonds, or Garvees.
“The Charlotte region continues to be plagued with air pollution problems affecting the health of our residents,” June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina, said in a statement. “As we work to improve the quality of life in the region, the one thing we don’t need is a 22-mile highway bursting through our rural countryside, increasing vehicle emissions and sprawl.”
Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the Turnpike Authority failed to justify an outdated highway project.
“The agency has not explained why the taxpayers and their children are being saddled with generations of debt to pay for this destructive leviathan that serves none of the purposes claimed by the project proponents,” he said.
Last month, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its final approval for the Monroe Connector after an appellate judge in May agreed with environmentalists that studies for the $725 million project were flawed. The Turnpike Authority has said the agency is gathering additional data to address the court’s concerns.
The 19.7-mile Monroe Connector is also a tolled, limited-access bypass around heavily congested U.S. 74 from Monroe to Charlotte. The Turnpike Authority and the state have sold a combination of bonds to finance most of the project.
Because no revenues from the project secure the debt, bondholders may not receive notices about the legal problem. In addition, bond resolutions for the Monroe Connector allow proceeds to be used for other projects.