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NCTA Held Back Data On Monroe Connector Bypass Adds To Credibily Issues

N.C. held back data on bypass, documents say
Records suggest feds were given a misleading projection on Monroe toll road near U.S. 74.
By Steve Harrison
Posted: Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2011

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Conflicting stories?

Emails and documents suggest the N.C. Turnpike Authority didn’t give the federal government a true accounting of how a proposed $800 million toll road in Union County would affect the environment, which may have made it easier for the highway to get approvals necessary for construction.

Before highways are built, the federal government requires environmental impact projections. Those are compared to a forecast of what would happen if the road weren’t built – how many houses would be built anyway, for example.

But when conducting its “no build” study, the authority used data that assumed the Monroe Connector/Bypass highway was already in place, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill. The group has filed a lawsuit to stop construction, scheduled to begin this year.

That means the Turnpike Authority didn’t do a true “build vs. no build” study – comparing instead building the road to building the road, the lawsuit argues.

“That’s cooking the books,” said transportation consultant David Hartgen, professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte, who is not connected to the lawsuit.

The N.C. Department of Transportation, which works with the Turnpike Authority, acknowledges it used data projecting the highway had already been built. But it said its engineers adjusted their analysis to make the studies valid, and that the amount of data used assuming the toll road existed was insignificant.

One federal official who has been critical of the project moving forward said she believes the Turnpike Authority wasn’t forthright.

Marella Buncick, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Asheville, said she was concerned whether the environmental studies were done correctly because they showed little or no impact to the Carolina heelsplitter mussel, a federally endangered species.

Before signing off on the project last summer, she said she asked the Turnpike Authority and the Federal Highway Administration whether the studies used “build” data in the “no build” forecast.

“They told me no,” Buncick said. “They wouldn’t admit to that. Now, if they are saying it doesn’t matter, then why not re-do the analysis with the correct information?”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is still reviewing a permit for the project, probably will consider Buncick’s decision to sign off on the project. It’s the last federal hurdle before it’s approved.

The dispute over the environmental studies for the Monroe Connector/Bypass comes as the state has recently been criticized for how it handled federally required studies for another proposed toll road, the Garden Parkway in Gaston County. Some critics have questioned whether the authority manipulated a study on job loss as a result of the highway to make it appear more favorable to the project.

Debate over need

The 22-mile Monroe Connector/Bypass would run parallel to U.S. 74, from the outerbelt to about five miles east of Monroe.

The state and groups such as the Charlotte Chamber believe the new toll road is the only way to get traffic moving. Some environmentalists believe the existing U.S. 74 could be improved for far less money, just as the N.C. DOT is doing along Independence Boulevard inside Charlotte city limits.

Both sides agree that Union County will continue to grow rapidly. But the toll road could affect where and how the growth will occur.

The Southern Environmental Law Center believes the bypass will encourage people to live along the toll road route, as well as western Union County and adjacent Anson County. They argue that will lead to more sprawl – just as Charlotte’s outerbelt made it easier for people to live in areas such as Weddington.

Environmental lawyers said they became curious when the build/no build scenarios showed little difference in how many miles people would drive if the toll road were built or weren’t built.

On Dec. 2, 2009, Turnpike Authority engineer Jennifer Harris’ handwritten notes about the project state that the data used “assumes the Monroe project in place.” She could not be reached for comment.

That meant that when the Turnpike Authority was doing its “no-build” study, it was using data that assumed the highway had already been built.

Nine months later, in 2010, the Turnpike Authority told the federal government something different. It wrote in its Environmental Impact Statement: “Traffic Analysis Zone socioeconomic forecasts for the No Build Scenario did not include the Monroe Connector.”

David Farren, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that the documents and notes show the Turnpike Authority was aware it was using incorrect data – and then tried to conceal it.

He said a law center attorney in September asked Harris, the Turnpike Authority engineer, whether the bypass was included in the no-build data.

Harris never wrote back, according to an email obtained under the state’s public records law. She did, however, forward the email to a colleague, with this one-line message. The email had a commonly used emoticon – a semi-colon and a parentheses ; ) – that looks like a wink.

“They lied to all the agencies, including Fish and Wildlife. That approval was based on this lie,” Farren said.

Turnpike Authority engineer Steve DeWitt said it’s “absurd” to claim that the state lied.

When asked why the Turnpike Authority wrote that the no build data didn’t contain the toll road, DeWitt told the Observer the authority might not have realized at that point they had made a mistake.

The law center said that the authority knew about the data, pointing to the handwritten notes from the previous year.

N.C. DOT spokesperson Greer Beaty said the email with the wink emoticon was only an engineer’s reaction to the SELC making a large number of records requests.

“There was nothing to it,” she said.

State’s response

The N.C. DOT acknowledged to the Observer that it did use the questionable data when determining one factor – how long it would take people to get to work, or “travel time to employment.”

But the DOT said travel time to employment was one of eight factors it used to study the highway, which the state said is only 20 miles out of a total road network of more than 2,000 miles throughout Union County.

In addition, other planners such as the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MUMPO, said it was OK to use the data. The state also said that Union County has been the state’s fastest-growing, and the area was going to continue to grow rapidly with or without the toll road.

The environmentalists’ contention “exaggerates and over-simplifies the role the project may have played in the No-Build scenario,” according to a response by Scott Slusser, N.C. deputy attorney general.

When it made other projections, the state said it excluded the toll road. When it made future traffic projections, for instance, the state “turned off” the highway to get a more realistic look at congestion without the toll road.

Kym Hunter with the law center said the authority’s arguments aren’t valid.

Because the state data already assumed the toll road would be built, removing the toll road from its traffic forecasts made traffic appear even worse, she said, further justifying the need for the toll road.

The law center said that the Turnpike Authority’s argument that the toll road comprises only a fraction of the total miles of road in Union County is wrong.

Said Farren: “It’s like saying I-85 is just another 30 miles of road.”

Disputed Gaston toll road

In the controversy over the Garden Parkway in Gaston County, a Turnpike Authority study projected that, by 2035, the new toll road would cost the state 900 jobs while South Carolina would add some 600 jobs.

In an email, Jill Gurak, with the Turnpike Authority’s consultant PBS&J, said she was worried whether there would be support for the project and asked if part of the study should be redone. She then asked: “Should more outside-of-model smoothing of the travel demand model results be done?” – a question that some critics said raises questions as to whether the study had been changed.

The state said that didn’t happen.

“She’s a very detailed person,” said Gene Conti, the state’s transportation secretary and a voting member of the Turnpike Authority board. “I think she was saying, ‘We need to look at this again.'”

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