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Hartgen: Monroe Connector Deserves Fresh Review

Carolina Journal’s Dan Way has a piece out to today on David Hartgen questioning the value of the Monroe Connector/Bypass. The article in full:

RALEIGH — Taxpayers and motorists would be better served if the proposed Monroe Connector/Bypass were judged on a merit-based system adopted last year rather than the old system that typically rewarded political influence and geography, a top transportation planner said.

The Monroe Connector and the Interstate 540 toll road are the only two long-range transportation projects that were exempted from the new evaluation system that was proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and enacted into law by the General Assembly.

David Hartgen, a retired professor of transportation policy at UNC-Charlotte and a former transportation planner for the New York Department of Transportation, has suggested several less costly alternatives to the Monroe Connector, a proposed four-lane, 19.7-mile, high-speed toll road, which could cost between $845 million and $923 million.

He performed a traffic forecast review of the project’s Draft Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has concerns about potential environmental risks from the bypass. Hartgen said he was neither asked to review nor did he examine any environmental issues.

The bypass would begin on U.S. Highway 74, one mile southeast of the present Interstate 485 bypass, and reconnect with U.S. 74 about one mile west of Marshville in eastern Union County.

“The more I looked at it, the more I realized that the whole justification for the project rests on a number of assumptions that turn out to be highly questionable and certainly are not explored,” Hartgen said. “So my conclusion was that the analysis was just unsupportable.”

The General Assembly last year approved the governor’s Strategic Transportation Investments initiative, a data-driven evaluation process intended to reduce congestion, spur economic development by linking municipalities through highway improvements, and spend construction dollars more efficiently than in the past.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine how this road could be justified if it were subjected to the new criteria,” Hartgen said.

He has estimated Monroe Bypass tolls will generate only $100 million to $150 million in revenues, compared to the nearly $1 billion it will cost to construct. Even if the toll road failed, the local area would receive a major infrastructure upgrade at virtually no cost.

Although Hartgen’s review does not say the Monroe Bypass should not be built, or that it should not be a toll road, he raises serious issues with the DOT report supporting it. He said it’s biased against making less expensive upgrades to U.S. 74.

“There’s a huge disconnect in the report between what the projected growth of the corridor is [until 2035] and the realities of recent growth in the corridor,” Hartgen told Carolina Journal.

“Projected growth in the corridor is based on a projection made before the recession. It’s clearly very high with regard to virtually all of its assumptions about how Charlotte will grow, about how Union County will grow relative to Charlotte, and how the study area will grow relative to Union County,” Hartgen said.

Almost all of the growth in Union County is not even in the corridor, but to its southwest, “snuggled up next to Ballantyne in Mecklenburg County, so it wouldn’t even be able to use the corridor anyway,” Hartgen said.

Most U.S. 74 traffic is local, so a bypass would not divert much long-distance traffic or reduce congestion dramatically, he said.

The study overstates time savings commuters are expected to experience on the corridor, Hartgen said, as it doesn’t account for “substantial improvements in speed” from 30 to 45 mph already occurring on U.S. 74, and there’s “no serious discussion” about why such advances couldn’t be expanded and continued.

The study “could have explored more alternatives for improving the quality of flow on the current road,” Hartgen said. Those include superstreets, arterial street upgrades, signal optimization, protected left turn lanes, using freeway-style limited access in some areas, and building frontage roads.

Building the bypass would require the taking of 95 households, 47 businesses, and 499 acres of active agricultural land, according to Hartgen. Some alternatives would not need to acquire that much property.

Hartgen said the new system of infrastructure evaluation should eliminate much of the cronyism that steered earlier highway projects. Under the previous system, Hartgen said, “the case [for new infrastructure] was made on geography and on political influence. So roads were selected largely without regard to merit, but simply according to where they were and how much influence various board members and state officials had.

“Our current method is much superior to that. It forces the numbers to come out in the open, and be evaluated, and discussed, and verified,” he said.

The Monroe Bypass is a throwback to the old evaluation methods, Hartgen said. It should be put through “this same kind of strategic transportation initiative numerical assessment that we are expecting for virtually all others of the thousand highway projects in the state that we’re considering,” Hartgen said.

Hartgen cited the Garden Parkway, Cape Fear Skyway, and Mid-Currituck Bridge as examples of proposals that were removed last summer from tolling status in the Strategic Transportation Investments legislation.

“So they’re back in the pack, so to speak, so they’re going to have to be evaluated on their worthiness,” he said.

CJ sent a query asking the North Carolina Department of Transportation whether the Monroe Bypass was scrutinized under the new criteria, and, if not, whether it is still possible to do so. At press time, NCDOT had not responded to those questions.

“We are still reviewing this report and will respond according to the environmental study process,” DOT spokeswoman Jen Thompson said of Hartgen’s critique of DOT’s Monroe Bypass report.

“The department is still working on the final supplemental environmental document, which will be out this spring, along with the anticipated record of decision,” Thompson said.

Hartgen said highway funding generally is allotted on an 80 percent federal/20 percent state share. It’s virtually a no-risk venture for municipalities and local officials, who then push for approval by saying the project is vital.

The Monroe Bypass “has a leg up because it’s permitted to be tolled, whereas no other road in the state has that funding source,” Hartgen said.

“Roads should not be evaluated on their funding, they should be evaluated on their worthiness,” and funding sources should be based on merit, he said. “The fundamental problem here is that the process is backward. The money is dangling out there, so to speak, before the justification, and it should be the other way around.”

Awarding “a gold star” to fund a road before it’s been evaluated diverts the state and federal portions of the funding away from other roads that might be higher priorities, Hartgen said.

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