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Group bands to fight toll road

BELMONT -- A brand new activist group believes all those yard signs in Belmont saying the Garden Parkway shouldn't take the southern route are only half right. This group doesn't want the parkway taking any route at all.

"There are a lot of folks who want to fight this cut-through completely," said Bill Toole, one of the organizers of the yet unnamed group that held its first meeting last week. "They're not interested in fighting this northern route/southern route thing."

About 120 people showed up Thursday at Belmont Middle School to discuss a plan for stopping the Gaston East-West Connector, commonly referred to as the Garden Parkway, from its goal of connecting I-485 in Mecklenburg County to I-85 in western Gaston County with a $1.18-$1.42 billion toll road. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority project is one of six toll road studies under way.

Late last month, project leaders announced plans to move forward with one of the two remaining Garden Parkway routes, running north of another potential route that stirred residents along Belmont's lower peninsula. Those residents formed a group known as Coalition Against the Southern Route for the Garden Parkway, mainly stressing location as the reason to keep the parkway from their neighborhoods.

Yet the newest group, while consisting of some of but not all the same membership, focuses on a broader issue. The group insists there is "reasonable doubt" the project should proceed at all, based largely on economic impact.

"It's a waste of funds, particularly at a time when we're in a state of financial crisis," Toole said. "And it's not even going to do the job it's supposed to do."

Toole said residents from Belmont, Gastonia, Mecklenburg County and both the proposed northern and southern route areas are interested in stopping the toll road, citing a $35 million annual subsidy for 40 years for the first stretch, plus another $20 million annually to complete it.

Stacey Ivancic, another organizer, is optimistic her group can succeed. Given the current economy and politics, she believes there could be no road built.

"I think it's a very high chance," Ivancic said. "Things are all in our favor."

The group hopes its approach -- debating the fiscal impact and community need for the project -- will make an impact.

"I don't think the government's going to stop it if it's a group of individuals saying not on my land or next to my home," Ivancic said.

Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman, also invited to the first group meeting, believes environmental impact also is a reason to consider not building the road.

"I'm not supporting the northern route or the southern route," Merryman said. "I'm in no way supporting the construction of the road through that area because the Catawba River is already inundated in that area with bridge crossings."

Toole believes signs point toward the possibility of a road not being constructed.

"The reason is, when the turnpike authority began, this route was the No. 1 priority," he said. "It's somehow dropped down to No. 4 out of 6. The reason it's done that is the project isn't as good as people thought."

Staffers with the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, in announcing the most recent plans last month, said there is a possibility of no construction, though it is slim.

"It can change," said spokesman Beau Memory. "It's not the final route. It's just the one we're pursuing, the one we're looking to build."

Project engineer Jennifer Harris said public comments on the project are requested by July 17. The "heavy public participation process" includes six open houses and hearings June 22-25. Project leaders, Harris said, are looking for "affirmation or sufficient justification for changing the recommendation."

For a full list of meeting dates and times, visit ncturnpike.org. The opposing group hopes to meet next week, but did not have a date set as of Monday press time.Visit stopthetollroad.com, the group's Web site.

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