A lawsuit filed against a proposed bypass near Charlotte, N.C., could have a big impact on how road and highway projects are decided in Virginia. If a coalition of conservation groups win their case in U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, it would apply to all states in the court’s jurisdiction, including Virginia.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and three other conservation groups filed suit claiming that the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration turned federal law on its head by assuming in the environmental impact statement for the $700 million Monroe Bypass that the highway already existed when analyzing a “no build” option.
“This flawed approach led to the improbable result that building the 20-mile, four-lane bypass with nine interchanges on the fringe of metro Charlotte would have practically no impact on development patterns, the Yadkin River watershed or air quality from increased commuting,” stated the SELC in a press release yesterday. The analysis also precluded from consideration an option for upgrading the existing highway corridor that would have cost a mere $15 million.
“If this flimsy, so-called ‘analysis’ can stand,” said SELC senior attorney David Farren, “the concern is we could end up building tens of billions of dollars in massive highway projects across the region without any fiscal or environmental checks and balances.”
A lower court acknowledged that the misrepresentation had occurred but ruled it “immaterial.” A ruling from the Court of Appeals is not expected for a few months.
Trip Pollard, a senior attorney in SELC’s Richmond office, said a favorable ruling would impact transportation decision-making in Virginia. “The failure to analyze alternatives is a consistent problem in Virginia.”
The $244 million Charlottesville Bypass is a case in point, Pollard said. The Virginia Department of Transportation did not study the alternative Places 29 plan for ameliorating congestion on U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville when resurrecting the project from mothballs after nearly 20 years. Another example is the proposed rebuilding of U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk as a limited access highway, a project to which the state has committed $500 million. VDOT never gave consideration to upgrading the existing four-lane highway.
“We’re optimistic” about a favorable ruling, Pollard said. “The court asked a lot of good questions.”