A tollway’s toll: Human, environmental impact of 540 expansion loom large in southern Wake County

A tollway’s toll: Human, environmental impact of 540 expansion loom large in southern Wake County

- in Environment, Top Story


Two boys dance on Blue Horizon Drive, in the Blue Skies Mobile Home Park near Apex. About half of the park, including these boys’ home, will be demolished if the Complete 540 toll road project is built. (Photos: Lisa Sorg)

[Editor’s note: The North Carolina Justice Center submitted comments on the Complete 540 project. Although NC Policy Watch is affiliated with the Justice Center, the staffs of the two organization did not confer with respect to the comments. In addition, Policy Watch has not reviewed these comments in order to maintain its journalistic independence.]

C arol Hinske rocked in her porch swing, allowing the sun to toast her skin on an oddly hot winter afternoon. “It feels good on my bones,” she said, smiling, her eyes closed.

Hinske, who is 73, has lived in Blue Skies Mobile Home Park off Rhodes Road near Apex for nearly half of her adult life. She has nurtured gardenias and azaleas, coddled hyacinths and daffodils, as well as raised a crepe myrtle tree from “when it was just a baby.”

But now Hinske is preparing — mentally, anyway — to uproot herself, her cat, Bandit, and her mobile home to make way for a toll road.

If built according to the current plan, the Complete 540 project will connect to the existing toll road at Highways 55 and 540, then traverse 28 miles through southern Wake County before joining I-440 and US 64 near Knightdale.

The 540 toll road would plow through the southern part of the Blue Skies Mobile Home Park in Apex. The red lines show the noise abatement zones. (Map: NC DOT)

The controversial project would exact serious human and environmental consequences. It would plow over 156 wetlands (69.5 acres) and 39 ponds. It would involve 140 stream crossings, including the sensitive Middle Creek, Lower Swift Creek and the Neuse River. It would jeopardize the habitat of endangered species and displace 209 households and five businesses.

And if gasoline-powered cars and trucks remain the dominant mode of transportation for the foreseeable future, the traffic would also further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

The six-lane road would also pile on to the cumulative impacts already changing the landscape in southern Wake County. Enormous population growth — 200 percent in Holly Springs alone over the past 10 years  — has transformed rural farmland into exurban subdivisions, townhomes and apartment complexes.

This growth created a need, transportation planners say, for a new road to ease congestion. The traffic woes are real and legitimate. But suburban-oriented land-use plans of the 1990s, when the road was conceived, have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At Blue Skies, two young boys tossed a football in the street. Some residents were working on their cars. Within the next two years, Hinske’s well-tended flower beds will turn to asphalt. And by 2027, motorists who drive that leg of the 540 toll road will speed over her old home place — and those of roughly 18 others — unaware that at one time people lived beneath what will be the east-bound lanes.

Hinske gazed west as the sun started sinking toward the horizon. “It’s beautiful to see the birds,” she said. “Eagles even come by.” An adjacent forest which would have been in the highway’s path, had recently been clear-cut. The 25 acres are now littered with snags and limbs, as if a tornado had ripped through and carved up the land.

“At least I can see the sun set now,” Hinske said.

NCDOT says traffic congestion has created the need for the 540 toll road, and that mass transit can’t solve the problem alone. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)


A t 4 o’clock on a weekday, Benson Road, also known as Highway 50, is bumper-to-bumper with cars headed south from Raleigh. Turning right onto the road is a gamble. Turning left is an experiment in terror.

In southern Wake County, urban form has yet to impose its grid pattern on the suburbia. The roads observe the rolling topography, which is veined by creeks and rivers. Aside from the highways like NC 50 and US 401, the roads are narrow and winding, with little room for error.

In one form or another, Complete 540 has been planned for nearly 20 years. Even though the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges that one “can’t build their way out of congestion,” the primary purpose, DOT officials say, is to ease pressure on the main roads, even as increasing development has added to the traffic jams. A second consideration is connectivity — to Raleigh, RTP and eastern Wake County — from the south and west.

Originally, there were 17 route options with various permutations: some swung far south, others far north. After public hearings held three years ago, the selections were whittled to the current one, known as Detailed Study Area 2, a combination of the orange, green and mint corridors, whose color-coded names resemble a box of Chiclets gum.

The road would be paid for with a still-to-be-determined percentage of state and federal funds. But primarily the funding would come from from revenue bonds, repaid by tolls.  When the bonds are paid, the tolls disappear, said an NC DOT public involvement representative at last night’s public hearing. The crowd of 400 laughed.

I love the toll road Click to Tweet

“I love the toll road,” said Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears at a public hearing last night. He attributed the current toll road from NC 147 to Apex as a catalyst for economic development in his town. “I don’t mind paying for the toll road. And you have an alternative.”

But that alternative presents an economic justice issue. A toll road divides the driving public into two classes: Those affluent enough to afford the tolls — and everyone else. Drivers whose incomes relegate them to the surface streets could actually experience worse congestion, according to the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. Other arterial roads could see traffic speeds increase by eight percent during peak evening hours, said NC DOT Director of Highway Operation Dennis Jernigan. (This sentence was corrected to clarify it was speed, not the number of cars that would be improved.)

Josh Cohen, national policy director for Transloc, which specializes in public transit and on-demand rider services, said that the people who drive the toll roads at least are paying for the “externalities” — the consequences of building it.

Yet it’s difficult to put a price on the value of the Neuse River, or Swift Creek, or endangered species native to those waterways, like the Dwarf Wedgemussel.


Swift Creek is a vital habitat for the endangered Dwarf Wedgemussel. Pollution, including sediment in the creek, often a byproduct of development, threatens the species. 540 would cross a portion of Swift Creek. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)


T he Dwarf Wedgemussel has several things in common with the residents of Blue Skies Mobile Home Park.

Protected by a shell, it carries its home around. Its habitat is being destroyed. And it will have to move in order to survive.

Barely an inch long, the Dwarf Wedgemussel has gone nearly extinct in its natural range, — 15 Atlantic slope river systems, including some in North Carolina. The Dwarf Wedgemussel is now extinct in Canada. It’s extinct in the Neuse River. But it still survives in Swift Creek, the type of small stream it prefers. Silt and debris from existing construction and development, though has polluted Swift Creek, and the number of Dwarf Wedgemussels is dwindling. That number is expected to decrease when the toll road is constructed, leading the US Fish & Wildlife Service to conclude parts of the route “very problematic.”

Freshwater mussels are sentinel species, the equivalent of the canary in the coal mine in aquatic environments, wrote Lilibeth Serrano, spokeswoman for USFWS, in an email. As filter feeders, they are sensitive to increased siltation. Mussels are also known to be more sensitive than other forms of aquatic life to ammonia, certain metals and salts. They are highly exposed to pollution in the water because they are sitting on the riverbed filtering water, feeding on the detritus and nutrients floating or dissolved in the water.

human-caused extinction of other species is a great moral wrong Click to Tweet

There is an ethical perspective that explains why the Dwarf Wedgemussel should be saved from extinction, Serrano wrote, “the belief that the human-caused extinction of other species is a great moral wrong.”

To protect the survival of the species, NC DOT has proposed funding a “propagation facility” at Yates Mill Park in Raleigh. Here, scientists can collect Dwarf Wedgemussels, urge them to reproduce, and then reintroduce them into habitats that are undisturbed, at least for now.

But the funding, the amount still undetermined, would last for only five years. Critics of the proposal argue that five years isn’t long enough for the full benefits to be achieved. Jernigan of NC DOT defended the time frame, saying federal agencies had approved it.

The fate of the Dwarf Wedgemussel is only one of many environmental consequences the toll road will bring. It will cross or destroy wetlands, streams and rivers, including the Neuse, which is already polluted and beleaguered. (Upstream, the Neuse will endure another incursion with the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline).

The Final Environmental Impact Statement gives short shrift to air quality. For federal highway projects, federal law doesn’t require “hot spot” analysis of areas that are in attainment for carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Wake County has been in attainment for carbon monoxide since 2015 and has always been, according to the state’s Division of Air Quality.

That doesn’t mean Wake County will always be in attainment, though. If the toll road induces more traffic — not just moving it from one place to another — then those emissions would likely rise.

Greenhouse gases emitted from vehicle tailpipes are also a major driver of climate change. Electric vehicles are still outnumbered by gas-powered ones, and it’s difficult to predict how widespread that technology will be by the time the toll road is built.

“All we can do is speculate on greenhouse gas emissions,” Jernigan said.

Actually, more can be done.

David Shouse, whose family has land on Old Stage Road, asked NC DOT at last night’s public hearing to consider improving and expanding the existing roads — and more thoroughly incorporate mass transit — rather than embark on such a disruptive project.

The 10- year Wake County transit plan, to be released in April, includes service to the very areas targeted by the toll road. Jennifer Green of GoTriangle said that plan includes new service to Holly Springs and expanded service to Garner and Apex. Fuquay-Varina already has peak-hour weekday service.

Cohen of Transloc, interned in the Wake County manager’s office in 1997, around the time there were initial regional discussions of the toll road. “There is no silver bullet,” Cohen said. Mass transit, rideshare, “micro-transit,” also known as on-demand service, electric and self-driving vehicles have poised the US at a pivotal point in transportation policy and technology.  “We have to solve the problems of today and tomorrow,” Cohen said.


A t the first of three public information sessions sponsored by the state transportation department, hundreds of people swarmed around wall-size maps of the route. They were trying to determine if their homes were one of the 209 that would be demolished. It seemed to be a matter of chance.

“What does this color green mean?” Michael Dick, who lives on Deer Meadow Drive, anxiously asked an NC DOT official.

“Your house is fine,” the official said.

“Yes!” Dick cheered.

Michael Dick finds his property on the 540 route map. It would lie about 200 feet from the roadway. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

About 200 feet from the proposed highway, Dick’s house would lie within a “noise abatement zone,” meaning a large wall would likely be built between it and 540. But he would have a home.

“And my property values will go up,” he gushed.

“What about us?” asked Mary and Michael Clear, pointing at Property No. 972 on Bell’s Lake Road. An interchange is planned for the northern end.

“Your house would be purchased,” replied the DOT official, examining the map. “You would have to move.”

“How long do we have?” Mary Clear asked.

“It might be as early as the end of the year — but that’s at the earliest.”

Mary’s face tightened, as if she were trying to deflect the impact of his words.

The Clears have lived on their acre lot for seven years. They grew a lavish flower garden and stocked a koi pond. “It’s like a tropical paradise,” Mary said. “Now the off ramp will be in our front yard.”

Now the off ramp will be in our front yard Click to Tweet

When the Clears bought their property, they said, it wasn’t entirely obvious that it could be in the path of the highway. The disclosure, they said, was buried in the paperwork. But as time passed and the route selection narrowed, they had an inkling their home was in trouble.

“We’re moving to Florida,” said Michael Clear. “We’ll be near our kids. I’m trying to look at the bright side.”

If one can be lucky in these matters, the Clears do have several advantages over the residents of Blue Skies Mobile Home Park. The Clears have somewhere to go. They are not burdened by having to move their actual residence.

Many Blue Skies’ residents own their mobile homes, but rent the land beneath them for about $250 a month. The state will compensate the landowner, Johnny Buffaloe, for the taking of the property. The state will pay the cost of moving the mobile homes — upward of $3,000 each — to a new location.

But unlike houses, mobile homes depreciate in value, and many parks don’t allow older trailers. It’s also unclear what the vacancy rates will be when it’s time for them to move. The expansion of Apex Peakway is displacing many residents of the Shangri-La Mobile Home Park. They could find themselves far from their friends, their school, their social networks that bind a community together.

Nationwide, highways are responsible for dividing countless neighborhoods. In the 1960s, in Durham, NC 147 destroyed Hayti, a historic Black neighborhood. It has never fully recovered. For the current project, 540 would bisect two subdivisions, Woodcreek and Deerfield Park, essentially breaking those communities’ social links. (Woodcreek was developed with the knowledge 540 could run through it, DOT said, but it’s unclear if that information was passed down to all the home buyers.) In fact, one Woodcreek resident stated at the public hearing that the subdivision’s amenities — the greenway, for example — are on the southern end; those on the northern end would be cut off from them unless a pedestrian tunnel is build beneath the highway.

They’re going to take half my yard Click to Tweet

The highway would also require a relocation of part of the Colonial natural gas pipeline — to private property. “They’re going to take half my yard,” one man said at the hearing. “It will devalue my house. I have a considerable investment. So give me fair value for it, do what you’re going to do, then sell it to someone else.”

Nathan Lane lives on Blue Horizon Drive, across the street from Carol Hinske.

Lane and his wife just moved in a month ago, all the way from Seattle. Proximity to family — about 20 members of his wife’s extended family live throughout the park — and a lower cost of living drew them to Blue Skies. He’s unsure where he and his extended family, which could scattered over several mobile home parks, will move.

Lane said that until recently, they were unaware of the 540 project. Yet as a truck driver, Lane said toll roads benefit him when he has to circumvent congested highways. Time is money, and his job is to move goods as safely and quickly as possible. “I’m getting so tired of fighting traffic,” he said. “But I hate to see the trees go. I love nature.”

Hinske plans to move her mobile home to the northern end of Blue Skies. She’ll transplant some of her flowers, but the crepe myrtle and the gardenias will fall to the bulldozer.

“I love my flowers,” she said. “But I can’t dig up my gardenias. I can’t get around like I used to.”

In its new location, her home would lie within a noise abatement zone and in the shadow of the freeway, but the move would be relatively simple. There’s even a U-Haul business at the northern end of Rhodes Road.

And on the southern end of Rhodes, a sign has been posted. It reads: “Adopt-a-Highway.”

Residents of at least 18 mobile homes will have to leave Blue Skies Mobile Home Park to make room for the 540 toll road. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)