By David Fobes and Jake Frankel
After being off the radar for years, a renewed push to construct a section of Interstate 26 through Asheville is picking up speed. The drive is, in part, the result of a small group of influential local leaders who have met behind the scenes for more than a year to try to find ways of making the long-contentious idea a reality.
An informal group of seven people — Asheville Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, City Council member Jan Davis, Buncombe County Commissioners Joe Belcher, Brownie Newman and Holly Jones, former Mayor Lou Bissette (representing the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce) and WNC Alliance Co-Director Julie Mayfield — have met regularly for about 18 months to work on pushing the I-26 connector forward. Advocates have argued for decades that such a road is needed to boost safety and commerce.
Historically, the interstate debate has been marked by an inability of local governments to agree on a route, as well as concerns about the number of homes that communities would lose and the potential damage the project could do for years to come.
But in the last couple of weeks, the seven leaders, who call themselves the “I-26 Working Group,” have used their sway to start getting results. Buncombe County Commissioners voted unanimously March 18 to approve a supportive resolution the the group drafted. As this story went to press, Asheville City Council was scheduled to consider the matter March 25.
Meanwhile, opposition to the group’s effort has started to mount, with critics raising concerns over perceived haste as well as language written into the government resolutions that calls on the N.C. Department of Transportation to move forward with an interstate route called Alternative 3C, which they feel hasn’t been properly scrutinized.
Mapping the future
Hunt says the working group’s efforts began in earnest after Statehouse Rep. Nathan Ramsey won election in 2012.
“After Nathan Ramsey took office, he chose to push it from his seat,” Hunt says. “We sensed it was time for a responsible group of community leaders to get together. It started as comparing notes: Are there ways we could do this thing more efficiently? This self-selected group emerged to keep the dialogue going.”
Group members were also spurred by a new state law that overhauls how the N.C. Department of Transportation determines its funding priorities. The new approach will rate projects across the state for need and cost-benefits later this year. It will also take into account support from local governments.
N.C. DOT Construction Engineer Ricky Tipton pitched commissioners March 18 on supporting the $230 million Alternative 3C plan, which routes the future interstate across the French Broad River and then northwest of Westgate Shopping Center. Compared to previous routes 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. An earlier variation of that route dubbed “Alternative 3” by the N.C. DOT would’ve required almost twice as many total relocations and cost $20 million more, 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 county-approved resolution written by the working group 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.”
Hit the brakes
The authors say that the language backing Alternative 3C doesn’t mean the route will be set in stone, depending on funding opportunities and the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement. “There will be quite a bit of additional community input for the N.C. DOT to make adjustments and changes and things,” Belcher says.
“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,” adds Mayfield.
However, the long-term implications of that language have emerged as a point of contention.
Speaking on behalf of a neighborhood group calling itself the I-26 ConnectUs Project, Asheville resident Steve Rasmussen said March 18 it was premature for local governments to endorse a plan prior to an environmental impact statement.
Noting 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.”
Architects with the Asheville Design Center, a nonprofit that has been involved in I-26 planning efforts since 2007, echo that sentiment. “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 March 18. Instead, the group prefers more expensive plans called “Alternative 4” and “Alternative 4B” which would “provide safer movements that remove interstate traffic from the Bowen Bridges.”
No easy answers
Meanwhile, Hunt says he understands the concerns, revealing that the working group was on the verge of splitting up several times due to disagreements.
“It’s not something everyone agrees with 100 percent, but it could function,” Hunt says. “This is not a unanimous endorsement. We don’t all see this exactly the same.”
He adds that Alternative 3C “is not what I would choose if I had my choice in this matter.
“But pragmatically, we’re dealing with people with different views, people with different levels of power, with different agendas. My take is insisting on idealized outcomes and holding out only for that doesn’t necessarily yield a productive outcome. This is a very strong effort to find some commonalities, a ‘sweet spot’ of how to move forward.”
The resolution does include 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.”
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt and Newman pointed to that language before supporting the measure March 18. “We’re looking for a way to bring connectivity and better bicycle infrastructure,” said Newman. The resolution notes that the city of Asheville has designated $1 million in funding for the project to “support critically needed community-connectivity features.”
But in terms of the $230 million funding request, the Alternate 3C proposal focuses only on interstate construction. And Commissioner Mike Fryar asserts that the idea of the N.C. DOT ranking the project based on that funding number and then allowing local governments to request more money for significant adjustments 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,” Fryar said March 18, explaining that he supports the proposal as is and doesn’t want to spend more money on studies.
The influential French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization board will meet March 27 to consider the proposal. Hunt, Newman, Jones and Davis sit on that board.
The N.C. DOT will finalize its list of state construction priorities this fall. The agency will organize a public hearing on the project in early May, although a specific date and location has not been set yet, according to Tipton. It’s unlikely that an environmental impact statement would be completed until 2016, he says.
In the meantime, Gantt acknowledged March 18 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.”