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Toll road path chosen

Belmont City Councilman Charlie Martin points out a proposed Belmont peninsula crossing of the Gaston East-West Connector, known as the Garden Parkway, in conversation with Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce Friday.
Belmont City Councilman Charlie Martin points out a proposed Belmont peninsula crossing of the Gaston East-West Connector, known as the Garden Parkway, in conversation with Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce Friday.

GASTONIA -- Opponents of the Garden Parkway proposed southern route can breathe a bit easier, for now. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority announced plans Friday to move forward with the northern route.

"I'm very happy with the results of the northern route," said Gaston County Regional Covekeeper C.D. Collins, one of many who organized neighbors in Forest Bay, Woodland Bay and other areas to oppose the southern route. "For the most part, it was exactly what we suggested years ago. We're extremely pleased."

Only one stretch of the toll road, where the parkway would veer south between Bud Wilson Road and South New Hope Road just north of Daniel stowe Botanical Garden could still be improved, said Collins, also a Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation board member.

"There's one small section in there I wish they had done differently," he said. "For the most part, it's great."

The decision -- made by the turnpike authority, state department of transportation and federal highway authority -- was made after the Environmental Impact Study was released Friday.

"What we're talking about is a recommended alternative," said project engineer Steve DeWitt. "We believe this corridor is the place this project will be built, but the process has a long way to go. Things could change."

Public meetings on the $1.18-$1.42 billion project were held in 2003, 2006 and 2008 and drew interest of many landowners and residents, with many opposing a proposed southern route that would run close to the garden and cut through the Paradise Point neighborhood. Instead, the recommended route runs north on the Belmont peninsula, then heads southwest of the garden until heading north again at Bud Wilson Road.

Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce said the decision is a victory for some in Belmont, but not everyone.

"We didn't weigh in on the northern route vs. the southern route, because the northern route starts to encroach on the city itself and the southern route would impact many more established neighborhoods," he said, explaining they suggested a middle route that was nixed because of issues with the Allen Steam Station.

Boyce said residents call his office almost daily to find out what's happening to their properties.

"Our main concern remains the uncertainty hanging over the project," he said.

While public comment helped planners make their decision, also taken into account were river crossings, endangered species, wetland protection to schools, churches and cemeteries.

"It's not a vote," said staff engineer Jennifer Harris. "It's not this number of people said they liked this one best so this one wins."

She said not building a toll road at all, an option voiced to much applause at the public meeting last year, is on the table, though not likely.

"The no build is an alternative," Harris said. "It's a baseline, and it's still an alternative."

Officials also reaffirmed plans for the entire project, saying the environmental impact statement would not change from its original goal.

"The project is from (I-) 85 to (I-) 485, and that will not change," Harris said.

DeWitt did say that a timeframe for when the entire project might be complete is not an exact science.

"What happens from this point forward is all predicated on available funding," he said.

Estimates have the plan being open to traffic in late 2014. Prior, construction should begin in 2011. Several more public meetings are planned this year, and project leaders set July 17 as the cut off for public comment on the latest proposal. Staff says that public comment through July 17 will go into the final decision.

Want to know more?

The draft Environmental Impact Statement and a citizens' summary are available at ncturnpike.org/projects/gaston.

By mid-May, hard copies will be at the Gaston County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Departments; the Belmont Branch, Bessemer City Branch, Gaston County, Lowell Branch, Steele Creek Branch and Union Road Branch libraries; the Turnpike Authority office in Raleigh; the NCDOT Division 10 office in Albemarle and the NCDOT Division 12 office in Shelby.

The Turnpike Authority will hold public meetings in the project area to give residents an opportunity to review and comment on the project. Pre-Hearing Open Houses are scheduled for June 22, 23, 24, and 25. Public Hearings are scheduled for June 23 and 25.

The public comment period is open until Friday, July 17. Comments should be mailed to Jennifer Harris, P.E., North Carolina Turnpike Authority; 1578 Mail Service Center; Raleigh, NC 27699-1578 or e-mailed to gaston@ncturn-pike.org. Citizens can also call the project hotline at 800-475-6402.

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