Marching orders?

The people have spoken. And now that the I-26 Community Design Forum has come and gone, this question remains: What will the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration do with what they’ve heard?

An estimated 450 folks filed through the doors of the Renaissance Hotel ballroom during the design forum, bounceing ideas off transportation specialists. The July 21-22 event — a first for this area — generated enough concepts, comments and criticism of the contentious highway project to literally fill 150 pages of newsprint-sized paper. (Forum coordinators kept a running, written record of citizens’ input throughout the forum.)

“These are marching orders,” said forum facilitator Fred Craig, a charismatic planning consultant from Cincinnati, about the 150 pages — marching orders that the forum’s coordinating committee will pass on to the Asheville City Council, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and, of course, the NCDOT. DOT officials have said they will use the ideas they consider feasible in terms of construction requirements and available funding.

“We will have to take it all back and talk about it,” said Tom Kendig, a DOT environmental engineer who has often been the target, at community meetings, for people’s negative comments about the highway’s design. “It was not our intent to come out of here with a design. We’re here to get some ideas and incorporate what we can.”

If the forum’s only goal was to give the public another chance to express concerns about the design of the $140 million project — which aims to connect Interstate 26 with U.S. 19/23 and accommodate forecasted increases in local traffic congestion — then that mission was accomplished. Through much of the process, scores of citizens and handfuls of traffic engineers could be seen hunkered over maps and makeshift drawings. Questions were asked, questions were answered. Numerous proposals floated and flew, and just as many seemed to sink because they were rejected as impossible.

Among the recurring themes presented by forum attendees were: separating Patton Avenue from I-240; reconnecting roads and neighborhoods originally bisected by I-240; adding pedestrian and bicycle pathways; improving highway aesthetics with landscaping that’s pleasing to the eye and in character with this unique city; and redoing traffic models to support building fewer lanes.

It was nearly six months since the DOT had agreed to the Asheville City Council’s request that the agency take part in the forum. But despite extensive local media coverage, many in attendance still seemed genuinely surprised that the event was even happening. Citizens and the DOT, hand in hand, marked a bureaucratic first for these parts. “This process, with all these DOT engineers, is really quite remarkable,” commented Walter Kulash, the Orlando, Fla.-based traffic consultant who had predicted back in November that the DOT might be willing to participate. “We are pleased about that.”

The whole event was a bit of a media frenzy, too: Flashbulbs popped and videotape whirred. And at the end of the second day, a couple of hundred people (prodded by Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick) gushingly clapped and thanked the DOT and FHA for participating.

“Two years ago, who could think this was possible?” asked Sitnick. “I didn’t. I was told [the DOT's proposed design] was a done deal.”

Former Asheville MayorLou Bissette, the forum’s coordinating-committee chairman, took a turn at thanking the highway professionals, too. He also lauded the many citizens in attendance for acting harmoniously, for the most part, on what has been a contentious issue. That precipitated still more clapping.

“I’ve been attending community meetings like this for 20 years, and this is the best one I’ve ever attended,” Bissette declared. “You hear that Asheville is so diverse, with all this acrimony and division, that we can’t get anything done or anyone going in the same direction. This was an exercise in proving that wrong.”

But back to the big question: What will the DOT and the FHA do with what they’ve heard? Citizens asked this repeatedly, particularly on the first day of the forum, but highway officials remained basically pokerfaced — not showing any of their cards during the forum.

Day one of the forum was divided into four discussion sections. There was ample discourse on design aesthetics and pedestrian connections, but the most active dialogue involved separating Patton Avenue from I-240 and debating such touchy issues as safety, copacity, design speeds and the number of lanes.

People in the lively and often jovial Patton Avenue-interchange discussion group focused on reclaiming land lost to I-240 (by eliminating the highway ramps east of the Smokey Park Bridge) and reconnecting neighborhoods divided by the bypass 27 years ago.

“I think it’s great,” said Asheville City Council member Terry Bellamy, who never strayed far from this table. “Everybody is saying bring Hillcrest back into the fold, and that says a lot about Asheville as a community progressing.”

At one point, the talk at the table reached a peak of excitement, and a man asked everyone who would like to separate Patton Avenue and turn it into a gateway to the city to raise their hand. “Ninety-five percent were for it,” noted Bellamy. The same man than turned to Kendig and inquired, “Can we have it?” Kendig replied that the DOT wasn’t committing to any designs; a few folks appeared to be biting their tongues after his comment.

Meanwhile, the group discussing the number of lanes was just as passionate, but without the gaiety. Nine out of 10 people called for less than eight lanes, urging the DOT to redo its traffic modeling. The current model’s projection for 2025 says Asheville will need eight lanes to avoid gridlock, but citizens weren’t buying it; many wanted the DOT to make a 25-year projection for a community that would probably be doing less driving and relying more on walking, biking, and public transportation.

“I’m a citizen and a taxpayer,” declared Chicken Hill resident Recy Coleman. “It’s hard for me to conceive that an eight-lane highway in Asheville is needed. Most of the citizens don’t want the eight lanes. DOT, are the voices of the citizens going to be heard?”

Ken Burleson, the lead DOT designer on the I-26 Connector project, fielded the questions in this segment of the forum. For him, the issue of eight lanes is an almost non-negotiable because of safety concerns, and he showed no signs of buckling under the heavy criticism.

“Residents and the DOT have a different set of priorities,” said citizen Tom Leslie. “DOT wants to move traffic at the fastest speeds possible. As residents, we are faced with the livability of the highway, and we don’t care to have the maximum amount of speed. Trying to avoid gridlock is, perhaps, not one of our priorities.”

“There are some very valid points and concerns being considered here, but you have two four-lane highways coming together, and that means eight lanes for a short distance,” said Burleson, during a break between sessions. “Four plus four equals eight — all day long.”

Kulash had this to say about the lane discussion: “What we are seeing is a sentiment that anything less than six lanes will be over their dead bodies.”

So what’s next? Residents got their opportunity for input and, after some haggling, may have found some consensus, too. The main question remaining is: Just how much common ground will the community and the DOT find on the project? The forum’s community coordinating committee will give the citizens of Asheville regular updates on just which design ideas the DOT is actually incorporating into the project. Until then, many folks will likely continue wringing their hands.

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