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Find out what's coming down THE PIKE

STEELE CREEK -- The North Carolina Turnpike Authority plans to share information this week on a project that could completely reshape traffic from western Gaston County to I-485 in Mecklenburg County.

The Gaston East-West Connector, sometimes called the Garden Parkway, is the topic of public workshops planned for Wednesday in Steele Creek, Thursday in Belmont and Aug. 11 in Gastonia, N.C. New and updated information will be presented for the proposed toll road that could stretch 21-24 miles within the next decade.

"A lot of people probably have heard about it in the last few years, but there might be some newcomers who might not know about the project," said Jennifer Harris, project staff engineer.

The current route still has 12 alternatives along two or three main corridors, down from 16 alternatives a couple of years ago. The chosen route will connect Gaston County west of Gastonia to I-485 and N.C. 160 near Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. The estimated cost of the road is $765.4 million.

"Whichever alternative gets picked, the road itself should ultimately be the same," Harris said.

The road should be four or six lanes, but the outside footprint would remain the same and only the median would be impacted. The cost of land, particularly in areas such as Belmont's Paradise Point where new or high-end development is taking place, will play a role in which alternative is selected, Harris said.

"That's one of many factors," she said, adding that the number or relocations, right-of-way cost, impact on streams and wetlands, noise and historic sites would also be taken into consideration. "Obviously community impact is a primary concern."

Any alternative would include the same Catawba River crossing, though some alternatives would include construction through more streams and wetlands. The financial feasibility study for the project is complete, with a draft environmental impact study expected in January. The final document should be complete in May 2010. The Turnpike Authority hopes to award a contract for construction by November 2010 and have the project open to traffic by 2015.

The East-West Connector is one of four potential toll roads being studied by the Turnpike Authority following a a 2002 state general assembly decision to create the authority for studying, developing, constructing, operating and maintaining up to nine new toll roads within the state. No existing roads, though, will become toll roads.

"I think a lot of people are more interested in the location, where it's going to be, than the toll aspect," she said.

Money from the toll would be used to pay back the cost of construction, as well as maintenance, said Beau Emory, communications manager for the Turnpike Authority. At any point when the debt is completely paid and money from the tolls is no longer needed for upkeep, the toll would be removed, he said.

"It's only supposed to pay the debt service, the operation and maintenance," Emory said. "The state can't generate revenue from the tolls. State law requires that."

Referred to as the Garden Parkway because of its to its proximity to Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, the road could benefit several groups in the lower-Gaston County or upper-York County areas.

"It would benefit the garden, absolutely," said Jim Hoffman, marketing director for Stowe Garden.

Susan Bromfield, president of the Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce, noted the impact the parkway might have on S.C. 274 coming into Lake Wylie from Gaston County when the chamber moved its location near the intersection of S.C. 274 and 49.

"The garden attracts millions of visitors, and it's important to have adequate roadways and beautiful gateways," Bromfield said. "The more easily the traffic can flow, it will provide easier access for more visitors in the area."