Environmentalists file petition to stall $2.2 billion Complete 540 toll highway project

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A group of conservation organizations has filed a petition to stall construction of the $2.2 billion Complete 540 toll highway south of Raleigh, the most expensive in North Carolina’s history.

The Southern Environmental Law Center said in a statement it was representing Sound Rivers, the Center for Biological Diversity and Clean Air Carolina, in the filing to North Carolina’s Office of Administrative Hearings challenging the state’s issuance of a water quality certification for the road project.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) says that the next project milestone for the road is to award two design-build contracts in the spring or summer for N.C. 55 Bypass to U.S. 401.

Video: Complete 540 Project Overview (NCDOT)

The petition challenges the NC Division of Water Resources’ failure to consider what the group describes as the toll highway’s devastating impacts on water quality, endangered aquatic species, and development patterns in Wake County, as well as the division’s failure to consider other cost-effective and less environmentally destructive alternatives, the group says in a statement.

The environmentalists assert that the proposed toll highway would tear through 57,000 linear feet of streams and 70 acres of wetlands.

“We are disappointed that Gov. Cooper’s administration continues to aggressively press forward with this project, despite the governor’s commitment to combatting climate change.” said Kym Hunter, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The toll highway will result in devastating impacts to the natural and human environment and we are disappointed to see what amounts to a rubber stamp approval of a project that deserves much greater scrutiny.”

This petition is the conservation groups’ latest action to halt construction on the highway project. The conservation groups have already filed numerous claims in federal court challenging approvals for the project by other state and federal agencies.

“We are disappointed in the Cooper administration for approving a project with such enormous consequences for wetlands and water quality in Southern Wake County,” said Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. “The Division of Water Resources is abandoning its duty to protect water resources with this approval of what would be one of the state’s most destructive highway projects.”

This highway would irreversibly damage some of the last remaining Wake County streams that support unique, sensitive aquatic wildlife like the Neuse River waterdog and several rare and endangered mussels,” said Perrin de Jong, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “This highway project must be stopped.”

The conservation groups say they have repeatedly urged North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and the state Secretary of Transportation, Jim Trogdon, to reconsider construction of the toll highway and pursue other lower-cost, less-damaging, and equitable transportation options. The groups have put forth an innovative alternative solution, ACCESS2040, which would rely on upgrading existing roads and innovative transportation improvements to reduce congestion throughout the Complete 540 project area at a much lower cost and with far fewer environmental impacts, the statement says.

“Especially after the governor’s executive order on climate change, we are disheartened to see the Division approve a highway of this magnitude which will significantly exacerbate climate emissions,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina. “This highway would only further impair air the state’s quality, while providing little benefit to the public.”

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