The North Carolina Department of Transportation has been holding at the starting line. And after much waiting, the state legislature finally handed Gov. Pat McCrory the starter pistol.
The House and Senate ratified a transportation bill June 19 that effectively repeals the state law banning study of the Red Route. It includes language that requires DOT to move quickly, at the request of Garner.
Based on old estimates, the repeal of the route would have initiated a roughly two-year process to study alternative routes of the 540 Triangle Expressway. Federal agencies had withdrawn funding over the 2011 state law barring study of the route through Garner as part of the Environmental Impact Statement, as it goes through less wetland area than other routes.
With the language in the law, that process of picking a route could be accelerated, though it is unclear how much.
“I don’t know what resources I may have given to me,” DOT project manager Eric Midkiff said. “I have a feeling we’ll be having conversations about that soon.”
Old time-lines are “out the window,” Midkiff said, which is good for Garner. Though opposed to repeal, the town has resigned itself to the fact that study will occur and wants it done quickly, and lobbied for the project-accelerating language in the bill. Asked if, for example, the two-year selection process could be cut in half, Midkiff said it fully depended on resources.
“It’s not out of the question,” Midkiff said.
If and when McCrory’s pen touches the law, the DOT will work to select which routes will be studied in-depth, survey and study the routes, and write up a draft report.
That process was initially expected to take 20 months. A public hearing could occur about two months later, and after reviewing comments another few months could have passed before a route was chosen. Now those timelines could shorten.
Legislators, however, did their part lengthening it. House Bill 10 was among the first pieces of legislation penned this session, passing in January. The Senate tacked on some other items, though, and it got lost in the shuffle for months.
Language from the simple repeal of H.B. 10 was inserted into H.B. 817, a broader transportation bill. Eventually the repeal in H.B. 10 passed without the complicating language earlier this month, but with a condition that it would only become law if H.B. 817 did. The General Assembly finally ratified H.B. 817 on June 19.
The process has taken so long that the idea of legalizing study of the Red Route actually appeals to Garner staff.
“We’re excited over it,” town economic development director Tony Beasley said.
The Town of Garner, legislators and DOT personnel have said they don’t expect the Red Route to ever be built. Federal regulators say they don’t have a preference, but the law requires different routes to be studied without a pre-determined outcome. The Orange Route south of Lake Benson, protected from development for decades, has long been the preferred route.