WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The NC Department of Transportation says environmentalists are costing you money and causing big delays for much-needed transportation projects across the state.
Environmental lawyers say the DOT isn't doing its job and is more focused on keeping its revenue stream intact than on building roads that make sense.
Congested roads are a reality in the Wilmington area and all across the state. The DOT has identified billions of dollars in needed improvements on state highways but says construction of those projects is often delayed by lawsuits from environmentalists.
"We've found in many cases over the last few years that we get to the end of [the planning and bidding] process, and then we get sued by an environmental group, who basically just want to delay the project," said NC Transportation Secretary Gene Conti.
In the case of the recent Sunset Beach Bridge replacement, Conti says delays caused largely by environmental lawyers cost taxpayers millions. When the DOT originally hired a contractor to build the bridge in 1990, the price tag was $8,390,000. Almost 20 years later, after the plaintiffs had failed to prove the bridge would cause irreparable harm to the environment, construction costs had more than tripled to $30,990,000.
Still, environmental attorneys say most lawsuits against the DOT are justified.
"The environmental groups can't wave a wand and stop these projects," said David Farren, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Going to federal court is serious business, and these judges are largely quite conservative."
Environmental attorneys say the courts have ruled against the DOT in a number of recent cases, for failing to accurately estimate the impact of planned projects. Farren says the DOT pursues overly-ambitious projects that are often suspiciously linked to politically-connected land owners.
Farren cited a number of cases to back that claim up, including efforts to build the Garden Parkway near Charlotte and the Mid-Currituck Bridge in the Outer Banks. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have financial interests and land holdings that would be effected by those projects.
While environmental groups contend that upgrading existing traffic corridors is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than building new highways, the DOT says in many cases, that's just not adequate to meet growing traffic demands.
"There's a long and difficult process to go through to get the environmental permits," explained Secretary Conti. "We're not asking for any special treatment, but at the end of the day, we believe when we've done a good stewardship job, we ought to be able to move those projects ahead."
In the last five years, environmental groups have filed four lawsuits against the NCDOT regarding major transportation projects.
Those lawsuits involved the Monroe Connector/Bypass project, the Bonner Bridge Replacement in the Outer Banks, the Winston-Salem Outer Belt, and the Gaston (Garden) Parkway.
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