BRADENTON, Fla. - A judge on Friday ruled in favor of the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Monroe Connector Expressway project, although the state's legal troubles may not be over.

U.S. District Judge James Dever III granted the DOT's motion for summary judgment, allowing the agency to proceed with work that began in May on the project, now estimated to cost $840 million, according to the DOT.

"The judge's decision allows the state to continue delivering the project," which will build a 20-mile expressway in Mecklenburg and Union counties, officials said.

Dever also denied the Southern Environmental Law Center's motion for a preliminary injunction and a hearing in the case.

"We are currently discussing an appeal of that case to the Fourth Circuit with our clients," said SELC attorney Kym Hunter, who also expressed disappointment with the ruling.

The SELC, which filed the legal challenge on behalf of Yadkin Riverkeeper, contends that data created by the state shows that the toll road will not improve existing levels of local traffic congestion.

"NCDOT has not evaluated cheaper alternatives to improve existing roadways," SELC said.

Last week's ruling was handed down after the SELC filed a suit challenging the U.S. Department of Transportation's Record of Decision in May 2014 approving the Monroe project a second time.

The USDOT had to revoke its initial approval of the project when SELC sued, and a federal court ordered new environmental studies to be done.

State officials said the Monroe Expressway will improve capacity and high-speed regional travel.

Construction on the toll road started in May, with completion scheduled for 2018.

The latest ruling in the long-running case comes five years after the North Carolina Turnpike Authority began financing the state's second toll road.

In 2010, the NCTA issued $233.9 million of taxable Build America Bonds backed by annual appropriations from the state for the project.

The next year the authority issued $10 million of senior lien revenue bonds, $214.5 million of state appropriation revenue bonds, and $145.5 million of grant anticipation revenue vehicle bonds with state matching funds.

In July, Standard & Poor's affirmed its AA ratings on bonds issued by the NCTA for the Monroe project, and bonds issued in 2009 for the Triangle Expressway, the state's first toll road. The outlook is stable.

S&P said the ratings reflect the general credit characteristics of AAA-rated North Carolina and legislative appropriation of revenues for the projects, which must continue annually until the bonds mature unless state law is amended.

In a separate case last week, Dever ruled that the state used improper growth projections in justifying the 22-mile Garden Parkway, according to SELC, which is challenging the project on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper.

It is not clear how or when the state intends to move forward with the nearly $1 billion parkway proposed for Gaston County. It did not score well on the state's new system for ranking transportation projects, and is not among the projects listed on the state DOT's website.

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