In between snow events that brought most state roads to a halt, the Department of Transportation held an open house in Asheville Feb. 11 to encourage public input and conversation about upcoming plans — particularly those queued for Western North Carolina, such as the long-awaited (and oft-debated) Interstate 26 connector.
With a respectable showing of residents and activists on hand, the open house began with a short presentation on House Bill 817. Signed into law last summer, it “overhauls the way North Carolina funds transportation improvements, allowing NCDOT to make more efficient use of its existing revenues to fund more investments that improve the state’s transportation infrastructure, create jobs and help boost the economy,” according to DOT officials.
The law provides the DOT with more flexibility on funding transportation improvements through the data-driven Strategic Mobility Formula and helps the state meet its top priority project goals. It also helps fund projects based on local needs. The new formula could speed up development of the Interstate 26 connector through downtown Asheville.
Mary Weber, a member of Asheville’s Multimodal Transportation Commission, attended the open house and explained, “I was writing about the I-26 connector and how I hope [DOT doesn’t] go with eight lanes because I think that’s excessive. They just keep building wider and wider and wider, and there are studies that show people are actually starting to drive less, especially younger people. A lot of them just can’t afford cars, and I know there’s a huge demand for more alternative, bicycle-pedestrian transit.”
She added, “So we’re just really hoping that they will be thinking more not just for cars but also for other uses. A true multimodal project.”
Julie White and Claudia Nix also attended the open house, noting their concerns — such as disappointment with the lack of “bike or pedestrian projects on the table at the moment,” said White. She is a member of the Black Mountain Greenway Commission, the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club and the Friends of Connect Buncombe, which promotes a countywide greenway system.
Ten NCDOT staff members and two metropolitan and rural planning organizers took these and other comments as they spoke with attendees. They also passed around a comment sheet to give citizens a chance to share their thoughts.
“In the coming weeks, each of the 14 NCDOT transportation divisions will submit its top transportation priorities to compete with other transportation improvements across the state for funding under the new formula,” reads the comment document. “To help determine these priorities, each division is asking local residents to provide their thoughts on which transportation improvements are most important.”
After holding a January meeting about the future of the I-26 connector, NCDOT opened a 30-day public-comment period that ended Feb. 12. The update noted the two alternative paths the DOT is eyeing for routing the future I-26 around Asheville: One plan would cost $251 million, and the other would cost $332 million and include extensive bridging over the French Broad River.
Nix said she was concerned about the way the overall project prioritizes fixing and widening the straight portions of I-26 first, “rather than the curved bottlenecks that we have,” she said. “And it’s only going to make it worse. You have to take care of the bottlenecks first.”
Sarah Repoley said she attended the meeting out of personal curiosity and to answer her questions about Merrimon Avenue’s increased traffic flow. She said she felt positive about the open house and the NCDOT’s willingness to accept public input, although she was disappointed there were no projects planned for connecting Asheville to a passenger railway system.
“I feel like our questions are being answered, and we can kind of mull it over,” she said.
The NCDOT plans to hold a public hearing later this year about the I-26 connector. There is also a Tuesday, Feb. 25, meeting about the proposed I-26 and N.C. 191 (Brevard Road) interchange. For more information on the Feb. 25 meeting, contact Undrea Major at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (919) 707-6028. Comments on the Brevard Road project can also be sent Undrea Major, NCDOT-Project Development and Environmental Analysis Unit, 1548 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1548.