RALEIGH — Now that the legislature has lifted its ban on the study of the reviled Red Route through Garner, the state Department of Transportation is resuming work on plans to finish the 540 Outer Loop as a toll road through southern and eastern Wake County.
“We’ve got to have 540 completed because of the population explosion that we have here in Wake County and the Triangle area,” Transportation Secretary Tony Tata said in an interview. “To me, it’s a vital project for this region.”
Planners will consider a few new alternate routes, and reconsider some old ones that were rejected a few years ago, as they plot a path for the six-lane continuation of the Triangle Expressway. Residents in the affected study area are receiving newsletters in the mail and invitations to attend public meetings in mid-October for updates on a project now called “ Complete 540.”
The new name appears to signal a firmed-up commitment at DOT. Previous leaders talked confidently about getting TriEx from Holly Springs in southwest Wake to Interstate 40 at Garner – but not so much about going all the way to the 540 endpoint at Knightdale in east Wake.
“I like that name,” said Ed Johnson, executive director of CAMPO, a regional transportation planning board of Raleigh-area elected officials. “I’ve been suspicious they’ll never finish the part east of I-40 because it’s wet and expensive – even though it will be more productive than the part west of I-40. A whole lot of traffic on that side of town would use it if it was there.”
The southern leg will have plenty of value on its own as the final link in a new southwestern bypass around Raleigh. Through-truckers and Research Triangle Park commuters will be able get from Johnston County to Durham County without having to squeeze onto Raleigh’s crowded Beltline.
Members of the N.C. Turnpike Authority were told last week that 540 would be built in two phases, but it is treated as one big project more than 30 miles long in documents DOT released Monday. A new timetable suggests that construction could start by 2018, with completion of the entire Outer Loop possible in 2022.
DOT planners marked a preferred path for the southern leg in the 1990s and took steps to block new development along what became known as the Orange Route. This path would trample sensitive wetlands south of Garner that shelter an endangered mussel, so environmental regulators have insisted that DOT compare it with an option farther north.
The Red Route option avoids wetlands but runs through neighborhoods, parks, churches and businesses in Garner. When the legislature ordered DOT to quit looking at the Red Route in 2011, environmental agencies objected, and the project stalled.
The legislature repealed its Red Route ban this spring so the studies could proceed. DOT will compare several routes in an environmental impact study that weighs human as well as wildlife issues.
“The impacts to homes and businesses of course are a very big part of the overall data that’s being collected,” said Eric Midkiff, a DOT engineer overseeing the project plans.
We may have to wait as long as two years, until fall 2015, before the state decides on its preferred route. But DOT planners say that if the new analysis identifies an overwhelming favorite, they’ll declare their choice a bit sooner, in the spring of 2015.
That’s a long time for Garner residents to wait.
“Let’s get this thing done as quickly as we can,” Garner Town Manager Hardin Watkins said.
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