Groundbreaking settlement between environmental groups, NC DOT over Complete 540 toll road

The Dwarf wedgemussel, the Atlantic pigtoe and the Neuse River waterdog finally got a break.

The NC Department of Transportation has agreed to deploy dozens of crucial environmental protections worth millions of dollars as part of a federal court settlement over the Complete 540 toll road project. These protections would help ensure endangered, threatened and rare species survive; improve air quality; and create more open space in Wake County.

“This agreement is a win for North Carolina,” said DOT Secretary Jim Trogdon in a prepared statement. “Being able to settle these lawsuits moves this critical project forward and saves taxpayers millions of dollars. In addition, the components of this agreement offer strong environmental protection along the project corridor, which will benefit this community for generations to come.”

In return, the plaintiffs — Sound Rivers, Clean Air Carolina and the Center for Biological Diversity— agreed to drop the lawsuit. The Southern Environmental Law Center represented the plaintiffs against the state DOT, US Fish and Wildife Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The $2.2 billion project would connect with the existing tollway near Highway 55 in Apex, then route 28 miles through southern Wake County before before joining I-440 and US 64 near Knightdale. The toll road has been planned for years in anticipation of rapid growth — which is now occurring — in Wake County. 

But opposition to the toll road has persisted nearly as long. The selected route — one of a half dozen that were considered — will exact serious human and environmental consequences. It would plow over 156 wetlands (69.5 acres) and 39 ponds. It would involve 140 stream crossings, including the sensitive Middle Creek, Lower Swift Creek and the Neuse River. It would jeopardize the habitat of endangered species and displace 209 households and five businesses.

DOT has already agreed to pay up to $5 million for a mussel propagation program at Takes Mill Aquatic Conservation Center in Wake County. However, the agreement lasted only five years. 

Under the settlement, DOT will pay for an additional five years, worth $3 million.

DOT also has committed to award another $4.5 million to research institutions or universities for water quality testing and mussel conservation programs by the end of 2022.

As climate crisis has become more urgent, opponents also have been alarmed that investments in car-centric projects, instead of public transit, will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

In North Carolina, the transportation sector ranks second only to the energy utilities in greenhouse gas emissions.

Studies commissioned by the plaintiffs showed that the toll road would actually increase congestion and air pollutions on surface streets as drivers tried to avoid paying to travel on 540.

The settlement agreement requires DOT to allow public buses to use the toll road for free, as well as promote ways to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, statewide. A greenhouse gas emissions analysis is also part of the agreement. And all new road contracts with DOT in the Triangle would require or incentivize the use of lower-emission construction equipment.

DOT would spend another $5 million to acquire high-quality land within the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico River watersheds for habitat conservation. The agency would buy, if possible, additional acreage near the Complete 540 project and Swift Creek.

“This unprecedented agreement will be a game-changer for many of the most important environmental issues in our state,” said Kym Hunter, senior attorney with the SELC. 

The total cost of the environmental protections is upward of $10 million. However, that represents only one-half of 1 percent of the total cost of the project. A protracted court case could have cost tens of millions of dollars and delayed construction for years. 

Construction on the first phase from Highway 55 to I-40 is scheduled to begin yet this year. If this phase the project stays on schedule it would open in 2023.

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