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Toll road continues to drive debate

BELMONT--Not surprisingly, public opinion about the proposed Garden Parkway toll road project tends to follow two basic lines -- where people live and where they want to go.

Cam Rhyne and Maria Gosa, both residents of a Sunderland Road-area Belmont development, say the recommended route of the road announced April 30 could mean losing their property and relocation. Rhyne's home sits on the edge of the proposed Belmont peninsula interchange. The lifelong area resident and father of four said they'll likely have to relocate under the current plan, and all for a road he believes no on in his area needs.

"I think a group of second graders could do better," Rhyne said Wednesday of the project during one of four open houses and two public hearings held last week by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority to gauge public response to the plan. "I think they need to make South Carolinians drive through South Carolina instead of coming through here. I don't have anything against people from South Carolina, but if they're going to use it, why don't they build the road in South Carolina?"

However, some residents are pleased with the plan, saying it will add a much-needed option for local travel.

"We do need better transportation," said Matt Hogan of Belmont. "We definitely need alternative routes in Gaston County."

The parkway would run from Mecklenburg County at I-485, just south of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, to west of Gastonia at I-85, totaling 21.9 miles. Turnpike leaders say the project will provide relief to a congested I-85 alternative.

However, the toll road plan culminating from two decades of work has been and remains a controversial project from residents not wanting the road near their homes to neighborhood groups calling for no road to be built at all.

"I'm against toll roads altogether myself," said Billy Hicks of Belmont at a Wednesday open house, although he does not live in the projected path. "All that money, they're not going to pay all that with tolls."

Organized grassroots community groups, such as stopthetollroad.com, gastonsecc.com and buildthegardenparkway.com, voice arguments for or against the plan.

"We've been hearing from folks who continue to think the project is a good thing and they support it, and also from people who are concerned about it," said project engineer Jennifer Harris. "We've heard the whole spectrum."

All told, the meetings last week drew 1,372 signed-in residents, although Turnpike spokesman Beau Memory estimates even more people attended than were accounted for.

"It appeared that many of the open house folks didn't sign in for the public hearing," Memory said of Tuesday's events at Forestview High School in Gastonia. "The auditorium seats about 1,200, and most of the seats were full."

Tolls should account for about 75 percent of the $1.18 to $1.42 billion road, according to the Turnpike Authority, with state law requiring the debt be paid in 40 years. Yet the Turnpike Authority admits funding is still up in the air, and the road likely could be constructed at first only from I-485 to U.S. 321.

"If they're just going to finish to U.S. 321 and not I-85, they don't need it," Hicks said.

Gosa agreed, saying the idea of starting the road without immediate plans to finish the full stretch seems counterproductive. No one will take the road without the western stretch, she said, and therefore the turnpike authority will miss out on those tolls and lose their funding mechanism.

"What's the point?" Gosa asked. "They're cutting their nose off to spite their face."

Other residents, however, say starting the project is key.

"There may not be that many cars at first, but when we look back down the road 15 or 20 years from now, we'll say it's a good thing we built this," Hogan said.

Reid Simons, Turnpike director of government and public affairs, said Wednesday her group expects to start receiving project funding next year, but it will take two years to determine how much total money will come in, which is dependent on their ability to sell the plan to investors. She also said the whole project has yet to "solidify funding."

Changes to the road from the original plan could include four lanes instead of six, Simon said, which would save money.

As for maintenance, the road will be a turnpike project for 40 years and then converted into a free, state Department of Transportation road.

The Turnpike Authority is taking public comment through July 21, and expects to finalize the plan by September. Visit ncturnpike.org.

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