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DOT’s I-26 Connector plan sparks mixed reply
Thursday, 03 January 2019 12:20

From Staff Reports

A public hearing on the proposed I-26 Connector project that would cross West Asheville prompted hours of comments from often-emotional speakers expressing a mixed bag of views — with a number in opposition (or at least requesting a delay), differing sharply with others saying it is much-needed, has been delayed by opponents for decades and needs to finally get the green light — on Dec. 4 at downtown’s Renaissance Asheville Hotel.

The hearing, hosted by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, could constitute one of the project’s final steps toward construction. NCDOT has been considering the project since at least 1989. In the meantime, business groups, elected officials and others also have weighed in on the plan.

A standing-room-only crowd of between 400 and 500 participants attended. A drop-in session session was held earlier.

NCDOT is expecting crews to begin construction on the $950 million project in 2020. Federal funding will cover 80 percent of the cost, with the state paying the other 20 percent.

The project has been separated into three sections by planners as follows:

• Section C, the southernmost portion, would reconstruct the existing interchange where I-40 and I-26/I-240 intersect. New circular ramps would allow traffic to easily transition between highways. The plan also would widen I-40 from a point near the Smokey Park Highway interchange to the Brevard Road interchange.

• Section A, the middle part of the project, would widen I-26/I-240 from four to six lanes and establish a greater degree of separation between Amboy Road and the interstate. An upgraded Amboy Road interchange would include two roundabouts to the north and south, connected by a stretch of road that would run under the interstate. Extensions to the north and south would connect the Amboy Road roundabouts to Brevard Road. These extensions would run parallel to I-26/I-240.

• Section B, which would have the most impact on downtown Asheville and would establish Patton Avenue as a local boulevard rather than part of I-240 and future I-26.

In addition, three new flyover bridges would carry I-26 and I-240 traffic over the French Broad River. One bridge would serve I-26 eastbound and westbound traffic, while two bridges would carry I-240 traffic.

The B section could take about five years to complete, the C section about four years and the A section, about two or three years, NCDOT Project Manager Derrick Weaver told the Mountain Xpress.

The drop-in session that preceded the hearing gave the public an opportunity to develop a more in-depth understanding of the project. To that end, a series of horizontal maps were pinned to the boards in the center of the hotel’s ground floor ballroom.

Among the speakers, Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield, who is a co-director of the MountainTrue environmental defense group, said of the project, “It makes me angry. It makes me sad. It makes me anxious for the future of our city. I literally dream about this project — although unpleasant dreams are usually called nightmares.”

She also told the crowd, “If I thought there was a way to stop this project, I would be with you.” Instead, Mayfield noted, city officials have been pushing for ways to make it better.

For instance, Mayfield noted that city leaders believe the changes to Patton Avenue could create a welcoming new front door to downtown Asheville.

“Patton Avenue can be Asheville’s grand boulevard, our Champs-Elysées, our Las Ramblas, an iconic street where people live and work, shop and eat and travel safely on foot, by bike, in buses and cars.”

For that to happen, Mayfield said the NCDOT would have to follow the design priorities of the City of Asheville. While many of those suggestions have found their way into the design, Mayfield said she hopes the city can negotiate with NCDOT for a number of other changes.

“These designs can make or break this project,” Mayfield said. “We have no choice… We must get it right... The aim is for the project to be smaller and less impactful — and to return Patton Avenue to a surface road.”

As Mayfield paused, some in the crowd arose from their chairs and gave Mayfield a loud and sustained standing ovation.

Continuing, Mayfield said that one alteration she is seeking is a shift of a proposed traffic signal on Patton Avenue to the east and the removal of an exit from I-240, which would make room for development.

Ideally, that land would be set aside for mixed-used projects, she said, adding, “We wouldn’t want this to be a whole avenue of hotels or a whole avenue of breweries. That’s not the city’s vision for this.”

Further, Mayfield said additional changes could reduce the total footprint of the I-26 project, such as eliminating concrete islands at intersections, which, she contended, would reduce the project’s cumulative impact on adjacent property owners.

Mayfield also said she would like to see some of the smooth curves at the ends of exit ramps made sharper to slow motorists down as they exit onto a local road.

Prior to the hearing, Suzanne Devane, a Montford resident with the group Don’t Wreck Asheville, called the designs “a horror show,” the Mountain Xpress reported.

Devane also told the MX, “It’s now become the gargantuan, stupid project that resembles octopus tentacles taking care of every traffic problem that Asheville has. And it shouldn’t be doing that. It should just be a straight shot.”

Regarding the city’s design aspirations for Patton Avenue, Devane told the MX that they are not compatible with the overarching goals of the project.

“This has always been a federal highway project,” Devane told the MX. “This has never been a Champs-Elysées project. This has never been an economic development project.”

City leaders, Devane said, are moving forward without a guarantee that their vision for the project will be realized. “All of it is on a hope and a whim,” she told the MX.

“Something needs to be done to fix the congestion; something needs to be done to make I-26 safer to access for people going from Charleston (S.C.) all the way to Johnson City (Tenn.) But this humongous project is not the answer.”

Meanwhile, among those praising the project during the hearing was Michelle Pace Wood, representing the Enka-Candler Business Association, who said that her organization has been pushing for the I-26 Connector since 1986.

“Our area (Enka-Candler) is cut off from downtown (Asheville), and we need better access,” Wood asserted, adding her prediction that the project would help commerce in Buncombe County.

In response to a number of speakers who lamented that the project seems unstoppable at this point, NCDOT spokesman David Uchiyama said the area impacted by the project is “essentially set,” but there could be room for refinements within that footprint, based on comments collected at the meeting — and in the weeks leading up to the NCDOT’s comment deadline on Jan. 4.

The project’s right-of-way is projected to displace 114 homes, 36 businesses and two nonprofits, a reduction from the impact NCDOT estimated in 2015. Plans on the table then would have affected 31 more homes and 20 more businesses.

Among comments by other speakers at the hearing, Devane (of Don’t Wreck Asheville) said, “It’s been interested to hear some of this history. There obviously three sections and section D is going to be the front door…. This has always been a federal highway project. It’s never been a Champs-Elysées (an avenue in Paris known for its charm) or an economic development project for Asheville.”

In a jab at NCDOT, she said, “What you’ve taken is the community’s design hopes…. and translated them into” a mess.

“We’re talking about 22 lanes of concrete to get to that point,” Devane said, adding that it appears “there is nothing” the public can do at this point to change anything. 

“All of it is being done on a hope and a whim,” she lamented. “At what point do you determine what we see in these photos… 10 stories above the French Broad River ... The city has to come to an understanding that their hopes and dreams will not guide us. They need to talk to DOT… Something needs to be done to fix the congestion... Something needs to be done… But this humongous project is not the answer.

“We’re supposed to be at a question-and-answer period tonight. But if we can’t get answers to our questions, then it’s just a sham,” Devane contended.

Uchiyama, NCDOT’s hearing leader, said, “We’ve got experts all around this room” to answer any questions.

“You know and I know that people don’t know what they’re looking at, at these maps,” Devane replied.

She added, “I see no reason putting lipstick on a pig.”

At that point, Uchiyama said evenly to Devane, “Your three minutes are up!”

Another citizen, Ted Fedura, a member of MountainTrue’s aescetics committee, said, “I have a deep concern about the ‘designer/builder’ decision. That process, potentially at least, circumvents” the ability for the public to give further input.

“We’ve vented this for three decades now,” Fedura said. “Certainly, we can delay this for a few more months, so that all comments can be” submitted.

“There’s a heavy risk that the designer-builder will choose cheep and ugly because” that will be more profitable for his or her company. 

Further, Fedura said, “We need to not use the need to maintain traffic speed to justify design decisions that are more impactful than they need to be. Reduce the design parameters to 50 miles per hour, rather than 55, or even 40 miles per your. There’s no reason to rush through Asheville from Charleston (S.C.) to Kingsport (Tenn.).”

Another citizen, Mary Tranner , who described herself as a downtown Asheville resident, said that “if you go to Wikipedia and go to ‘freeway removal,’ you’ll see where 15 cities have removed their interstates.”

Tranner added that “fourteen more (cities) in the United States and Canada are working to rid themselves of their interstates” and that the NCDOT and Asheville should consider moving I-26, so that it bypasses the city.

In a jab at Asheville’s proposed I-26 Connector, she said, “This is a huge highway complex, more like that of big cities,” which, she said, raises “air quality and ozone issues. I believe Asheville is primarily downwind from the ozone sampling device....

“Lastly I have a few questions to pose for thought... How long will it take before word gets out about the construction to would-be-tourists? How long will the project take (to be completed)? The Pond Road bridge took five years instead of three,” Tranner asserted.




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