Former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette has been a leader in the push for local governments to endorse an I-26 connector plan. He helped put together an informal group of leaders he calls the “I-26 working group” which assisted in drafting the language approved by the commissioners. (Photo by Alicia Funderburk)
Despite concerns over its longterm implications, Buncombe County commissioners voted unanimously March 18 to pass a resolution that calls on the N.C. Department of Transportation to construct a new $230 million Interstate 26 connector.
The interstate construction plans have been debated for decades but have gained new momentum in recent months after a new law overhauled how state transportation projects are funded. The N.C. DOT will rate projects for need and cost-benefits later this year. Advocates have long argued that a new I-26 corridor is needed to minimize traffic and accidents as well as maximize commerce.
N.C. DOT Construction Engineer Ricky Tipton pitched commissioners on a route called “Alternative 3C,” which passes to the northwest of Westgate Regional Shopping Center. Compared to previous routes that have been considered over the years, 3C “reduces the footprint” and “eliminates impacts to the Emma neighborhood on Boone Street,” he said. Construction would require the relocation of 19 homes and 15 businesses, he said. An earlier route dubbed “Alternative 3” by the N.C. DOT would’ve required almost twice that many total relocations, according to Tipton. At an estimated $230 million, the 3C option also costs about roughly $21 million less, he said.
Tipton said that the N.C. DOT was not seeking final approval of the route. “It’s not like the direction is being decided today, but it gives us some guidance to go forward,” he said. The language of the approved resolution states: “for the purpose of the upcoming scoring and ranking process, N.C. DOT use the estimated cost of $230 million associated with the preliminary 3C alignment alternative for the B section of the project.”
No easy answers
However, the longterm implications of that language emerged as a point of contention among several critics.
Speaking on behalf of a neighborhood group calling itself the I-26 ConnectUs Project, Asheville resident Steve Rasmussen said it was premature for the county to endorse a plan prior to an Environmental Impact Statement being completed “and a full understanding of the relative impacts and benefits of each alternative.” Claiming that the group is made up of representatives from the neighborhoods that stand to be the most impacted by the construction, including West Asheville, Burton Street and Montford, Rasmussen added: “Endorsing the least expensive alternative at this point, even for the limited purpose of prioritization, creates a very real risk that our community will be locked into that alternative in the future even if the EIS reveals another alternative is more beneficial.”
Several critics echoed that concern during the public hearing, including architects with the Asheville Design Center, a nonprofit that has been involved in I-26 planning efforts since 2007. “We are concerned that the new formula for ranking statewide projects favors the least expensive alternative over other important design requirements that will impact our community for years to come,” the organization said in a statement released to local media just before the commissioner meeting.
However, several other residents and most of the commissioners said they did not share such concerns, emphasizing that the resolution was a much-needed initial step.
Julie Mayfield, executive director of the WNC Alliance, a local environmental nonprofit, countered: “Where we are now is at the need to make a very limited decision. … The city and the county are committing to no more than they have to to keep this project alive.”
“We are not endorsing an alternative for the project,” said Commissioner Brownie Newman. “There’s certainly more design work to be done.”
In addition to solving congestion issues on I-26, I-240 and the Jeff Bowen Bridge, Newman said “we’re looking for a way to bring connectivity and better bicycle infrastructure.”
The resolution includes language asking the N.C. DOT to “clearly include elements that will address community needs for sound barriers and bicycle, pedestrian and neighborhood connections, including location, design, and the funding methodology of associated infrastructure elements.”
Asked by Board Chair David Gantt about including such features as part of its long-term plans for the corridor, Tipton said: “We’ve already been looking at those things — that is what we’re shooting for here.”
But the 3C proposal, as currently designed, only funds interstate construction. And Commissioner Mike Fryar countered that the idea of the N.C. DOT ranking the project based on the $230 million estimate and then allowing local governments to request more money for such features and different alternatives is “fake.”
“The fact is if we get scored at $230 million, that’s what we’re scored at. I don’t think we can go back,” said Fryar, adding that he supports the proposal as is and doesn’t want to spend more money on studies.
The DOT will finalize its list of state construction priorities this fall, said Tipton. It’s unlikely that an Environmental Impact Statement would be completed until summer of 2016. At the earliest, construction of any new I-26 connector would begin in 2020, he said. “All of this depends on the process that unfolds the next several months,” he added.
Asheville City Council will consider signing off on the county resolution on March 25. The influential French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization board will meet March 27 to consider it as well. And the DOT will organize a public hearing in early May, although a specific date and location has not been set yet, said Tipton.
In the meantime, Gantt acknowledged that “there’s no easy answers here.”
“The one thing we know for sure,” he said, “is if we don’t get in line, and don’t have the political guts to do something about this, other communities can build their roads, we’ll go to the bottom of the list, and we will never have the money. … we want to get something done.”