The North Carolina Department of Transportation has set what they call an accelerated timeline for choosing a route for the southern leg of 540, with a route to be chosen by Spring 2015.
The initial process of narrowing down a short-list to study in detail will wrap up by the end of the year. But in that competition, the Red Route hated by Garner leaders – along with the Orange Route – essentially have free passes into the next round of a process DOT says couldn’t be completed much faster.
“We have been required to study the Red Route. It would be a safe bet that it will be one of the alternatives we carry forward,” said project manager Eric Midkiff. “The Orange Route is the protected corridor that has been protected for years.”
The initial phase, which Midkiff said will take 4-5 months, will consist of looking at prior analysis, more desktop studies, public outreach and communication with various local and federal agencies. N.C. DOT will start with basically all of the options on the table. Proposals filling out the rainbow and then including some that had been eliminated will be evaluated, and even some new routes that have not been publicly relayed.
Eventually, the department will use public and agency feedback to help narrow the options down to the three or four most feasible – again, the options will all but certainly include the Red and Orange routes. In the next step of the process, DOT would compose a draft Environmental Impact Study. The EIS will compare the contenders, relying on detailed, on-the-ground study of the environmental, financial and human costs of potential routes as well as traffic pattern analysis.
The draft EIS will recommend one specific route in Spring 2015. That will be followed by a public comment period before a final call is made.
The Red Route had held up the process of continuing construction of I-540 since it emerged, enraging Garner residents to the point where it successfully lobbied for a state law banning the mere study of it. The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with wetlands preservation, argued federal law required at least study of a route north of Lake Benson, and federal funding was eventually pulled.
The state legislature then attempted to repeal the law early in the session in January, but legislative wrangling kept that from happening until June 26. Included in the law is language requiring expediency. Garner, resigned to the fact that the route must be studied, pushed for the language.
Midkiff said the timeline is very condensed.
“That’s a very aggressive schedule I would say. It’s obtainable. But it would be faster than what I’ve experienced on projects of this magnitude,” Midkiff said.
The Corps of Engineers, which has to verify work of N.C. DOT biologists, has pledged the resources to work as quickly as possible, Midkiff said. Review times on technical reports have been “cut to the bone” in the timetable.
Public meetings over various routes could begin as soon September, Midkiff said.