Big interchange planned where three highways will converge
The environmental groups that sued to try to stop a $2.24 billion, six-lane highway across southern Wake County have agreed to drop their lawsuit in exchange for several concessions from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The settlement clears the way for the final 28.4-mile segment of N.C. 540 to be completed from Holly Springs to Knightdale. Also known as the Triangle Expressway, the toll road is expected to be built in stages over the next decade.
To win an end to the lawsuit, NCDOT agreed to more than two dozen steps to protect open space and wildlife habitat and reduce air and water pollution. They include:
▪ Match 25 cents for every dollar that Wake County spends through its Open Space Program from 2020 through 2023, with an emphasis on buying property near the 540 project and Swift Creek, the stream the highway will cross and where rare freshwater mussels and other animals live.
▪ Spend $5 million to buy “high-quality land” to protect habitat of some of those animals, including three mussel species — the dwarf wedge, yellow lance and Atlantic pigtoe — as well as the Neuse River waterdog salamander and the Carolina madtom, a species of fish. The habitat should be within the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river watersheds.
▪ Hire a consulting firm to identify strategies specific to North Carolina to reduce the amount of driving people do in urban and rural areas. NCDOT must use the report to develop a “toolkit” to be shared with regional transportation planners and local governments.
▪ Require or encourage contractors on large highway projects in the Triangle to use low-emission construction equipment.
▪ Provide $4.6 million for studies on the propagation and restoration of endangered freshwater animals. The money should be awarded to qualified researchers or institutions by the end of 2022.
▪ Begin analyzing projects to determine the amount of greenhouse gases they will contribute to the atmosphere. This will be done only for larger projects where federal environmental studies are required.
The lawsuit was filed in early 2018 by The Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Clean Air Carolina, Sound Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity. The groups charged that the project would directly harm the threatened and endangered mussel species in Swift Creek and encourage sprawling development that would hurt the environment and air quality in the region.
The steps that NCDOT has agreed to will help ameliorate those concerns, said Kym Hunter, an attorney for the environmental law center.
“This unprecedented agreement will be a game-changer for many of the most important environmental issues in our state,” Hunter said in a statement released Thursday afternoon. “This agreement sets in place critical protections for the Neuse River watershed, preserves beautiful open space in Wake County, provides a lifeline for some of the state’s rarest and most endangered aquatic species, and creates important new mechanisms for combating climate change.”
NCDOT announced the settlement Thursday afternoon as a victory for taxpayers. Despite all the added costs spelled out in the settlement, NCDOT still expects to save money compared to the legal bills of fighting the lawsuit, said spokeswoman Carly Olexik.
“This agreement is a win for North Carolina,” Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said in a statement. “Being able to settle these lawsuits moves this critical project forward and saves taxpayers millions of dollars.”
“In addition,” Trogdon continued, “the components of this agreement offer strong environmental protections along the project corridor, which will benefit this community for generations to come. Instead of fighting in court, we negotiated a settlement that saves time and money while it protects and preserves some of this region’s most beautiful natural areas.”
The state began planning to finish 540 across southern Wake County in the 1990s, and the Federal Highway Administration gave its final blessing for the highway’s route in June 2018.
Last fall, the state Board of Transportation approved a construction contract worth $314.5 million for the first 8.6-mile leg of the project, between U.S. 401 and I-40. The state has since been working to acquiring permits and property and expects to begin construction as soon as late this year.
The highway will be an extension of the Triangle Expressway, the toll road that runs from Research Triangle Park south to Holly Springs and is operated by the N.C. Turnpike Authority. The state aims to have the road open between Holly Springs and I-40 sometime in 2023, with work on the final leg from I-40 to Knightdale starting in late 2027.
NC 540 will connect with I-40 and the U.S. 70 Bypass south of Garner, giving drivers coming in from Southeastern North Carolina an option for getting through Wake County to RTP. The highway has been endorsed by local governments in Wake and Johnston counties and was a top priority for the Wake business community.
Wake County commissioner Sig Hutchinson said the settlement makes the project even more important to the region.
“Protecting green spaces now is critical as Wake County continues to grow,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “And because of this agreement, our county will be able to preserve dramatically more open spaces over the coming years than we had previously hoped.”