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Lawsuit May Be In Span’s Future

Lawsuit may be in span’s future

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

CURRITUCK — An environmental lawsuit filed against another N.C. Turnpike Authority project on Tuesday may be a precursor to what lies ahead for the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit Tuesday against the proposed Garden Parkway in Gaston County.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of conservation groups, charges the parkway project would “destroy numerous homes and communities, fragment wildlife habitat, pollute the Catawba River basin, and add to the area’s air pollution.”

A state official says the N.C. Turnpike Authority — the state agency responsible for building the Mid-Currituck Bridge — has already factored in a possible lawsuit in the time line for the $600 million project.

The Turnpike Authority will know for certain whether there will be a legal challenge to the bridge after the U.S. Department of Transportation issues its “record of decision,” basically giving the project its stamp of approval. That decision is expected sometime in September or October. Anyone wanting to challenge the project will then have 150 days to file a lawsuit.

Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the group will not decide about a possible suit against the Mid-Currituck Bridge until after the record of decision is issued this fall. The SELC has already filed objections during the environmental research phase of the project, he said.

The possibility of a lawsuit is one reason the state Department of Transportation did not object to the General Assembly’s delay in “gap funds” for the bridge this year, said Greer Beaty, DOT’s director of communications.

The General Assembly has approved $28 million in “gap funds” each year for the next 30 years to subsidize the cost of the bridge. For the past two years, the gap funds have been diverted elsewhere, partly because DOT officials said they weren’t needed yet.

“Not having those funds in the budget this year wasn’t going to impact the schedule of the project,” said Beaty.

Beaty said gap funding is not needed this year, partly because DOT is anticipating the SELC lawsuit.

The gap funds, which will be used to pay the difference between what tolls take in and the cost of construction, will not be needed until after the lawsuit is decided in court, she said.

The Turnpike Authority is not expecting the lawsuit will halt the project altogether.

“Historically lawsuits do not kill projects but they can delay a project,” Turnpike Authority Executive Director David Joyner recently wrote to state lawmakers.

The SELC has also filed an environmental lawsuit against the Bonner Bridge in Dare County and against another Turnpike project, in Monroe County.

The SELC hailed a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District as a victory against the Monroe Bypass.

“The agency has not explained why taxpayers and their children are being saddled with generations of debt to pay for this destructive leviathan,” reads a SELC news release.

Beaty said the court’s questions about the Monroe Bypass is not a death knell to the project. The Turnpike Authority plans to get the project moving again once it has provided answers to the court, she said.

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