BELMONT -- For hundreds of people who turned out to protest a new toll road in Gaston County, a decision on the road's path will have to wait.
"Originally, they hoped to have it finished in January," Beau Memory, communications manager for North Carolina Turnpike Authority, said last week. "Now, they're saying first quarter of this year."
Since narrowing its scope to two possible alternatives, Gaston East-West Connector project leaders continue to work on the environmental impact statement and route selection for final approval by the Federal Highway Administration.
"The documents are done, but they've not been released," said Memory, explaining he expects both the environmental statement and the route selection to be announced at the same time.
The proposed southern route, which crosses through the Paradise Point neighborhood of the Belmont peninsula, has been met with much protest, including several people who spoke out against the path during a November city-held meeting that brought out 200 residents. Residents against the southern route -- citing environmental damage to the area and Lake Wylie, property loss and dangerous road conditions -- also held a "tie-up" in the fall at the Catawba River crossing and have collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against the southern route.
Gail Shook of Gaston Southeast Connector Coalition is not surprised by the delay.
"That sounds right, doesn't it?" she asked. "I just hope they're not going to pick the southern route. I wish they'd scrap the whole thing."
Online descriptions of candidate toll road projects state "the road should have demonstrated local support or a reasonable expectation of support," according to ncturnpike.org. Still, project leaders plan to continue. Project staff engineer Jennifer Harris said the toll road will relieve present and future congestion on I-85.
Lake Wylie Covekeeper C.D. Collins said taking yet more time to make a decision on the roadway that's already been in the works for nearly a decade doesn't speak well for the project. "They've had eight years, and they still haven't made a decision," Collins said. "Eight years, that's ridiculous."
When complete, the toll road will cover a 21.5- to 23.7-mile stretch connecting I-85 west of Gastonia to I-485/N.C. 160 near Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The initial cost estimate was about $910 million. However, Turnpike Authority leaderssay the project could total $1.25 billion. The road is scheduled to be open for traffic by 2014.