For 540, Orange is the new route -- and most are happy

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The Orange Route is the preferred route by most people.

It's official.

The state has finally settled on a route for the southern portion of 540, often called the "Outer Loop" around Raleigh. State officials say they're recommending the path known as the Orange Route.

"This is our preferred choice," said DOT spokesman Steve Abbott. "This is what all our work is going to be, primarily, the Orange Route from here."

Not that it's a done deal. It's just the state's final recommendation. The state will now tweak the plans and come up with an exact path within the 1,000-foot corridor that makes up the Orange Route.

"Maybe we can go back here and lessen the impact on the environment or lessen the impact on humans, do whatever, putting to gather the final statement, that's still to come," Abbott said.

The selection of the Orange Route was a big win for the communities that stand to gain or lose from the new road. Homeowners and business owners came out in droves lobbying for Orange and against any of the other choices.

Garner, for example, would have been particularly hurt by the Red Route, which would have cut the city in half and resulted in hundreds of homes being torn down. Neighborhoods in Holly Springs would have had to have been razed to make way for the Purple Route.

A look at the proposed routes.

Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears has been an outspoken advocate for the Orange Route and says his own home would have been affected by Purple. "If you look at the Purple Route, that went through Sunset Oaks where I live. It also went through Wescott and it tore them up. It tore them up."

It's less so with the Orange Route, however, because that's the path the state has been eyeing for more than 20 years. Generally, towns, businesses and buyers have stood clear of buying property in the Orange right-of-way.

Unfortunately, a small shellfish known as the Dwarf wedgemussel didn't get the message. And Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matt Starr is on their side.

"The Orange Route cannot possibly be built due to the impact on the surface water and the aquatic environment," Starr said.

Starr says he's retained the legal counsel of the Southern Environmental Law Center and is committed to seeing that the road doesn't impact the mussel or other wildlife, particularly in wetlands the Orange Route passes through.

"This road cannot legally be permitted. Under federal law, you have to choose the least environmentally destructive route. This is the most environmentally destructive route. In fact, a portion of this basin is one of only 25 areas in the entire state that is deemed necessary for the continued survival of rare aquatic species. This part of the basin supports 13 rare aquatic species."

Sears said that while there's a place in his heart for the wedgemussel, there's a bigger place for his family, friends and constituents."

"To me on a scale of 1 to 10, how important is the wedgemussel? Not very. But that's an opinion. There are other people who feel a little more strongly about that. The people I talk to say build a bridge over them or let's transfer them to a different place. I don't know what else we can do except stay the course to make sure this happens this way. And I think it's going to."

State transportation officials say federal environmental agencies have had a chance to weigh in on the plans and have given them an initial green light.

That could still change, but a spokesman for the DOT says the state's selection of the Orange Route will not.

"This is our preferred choice," the spokesman said. "This is what all our work is going to be is going to be primarily Orange Route from here."

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