Attendance was strong at the N.C. Department of Transportation’s daylong Interstate 26 open house on Sept. 16, and nobody could fault the agency for lack of information. The maps wallpapering the Renaissance Hotel’s ballroom were extensive, and the computer-generated flyover videos were nifty and informative. (To view the video, go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.) The whole thing provided a detailed look at the possible future of I-26 from where it enters West Asheville to where it connects with U.S. 19-23—the final link in a corridor extending from Charleston, S.C., to Kingsport, Tenn. (just north of where it crosses Interstate 81).
And while those in attendance seemed generally complimentary of the in-depth presentation, the experience did little to ease the fears of residents concerned about the project’s impact on Asheville. Several times over the past couple of years, the DOT has appeared before the Asheville City Council and has been engaged in back-and-forths with designers and consultants concerning a planned bridge across the French Broad River north of downtown. But until now, recent opportunities for public input, live and in-person, have been scant. So when the DOT invited comment at this presentation, Asheville residents obliged.
“Does this look like a community that can easily be paved over?” asked Mary Kathleen Riddle during the evening’s public-comment period. She was the first of many who spoke in favor of slimming down the stretch of highway planned through West Asheville. All of the current plans call for eight lanes. “Make it worth your while and ours by listening to us,” urged Riddle. (For background on the controversy, see “A Bridge Too Far?” July 30 Xpress.)
One after another, about 25 residents addressed the DOT representatives and the roughly 300 people in attendance. Most asked the agency to consider fewer than eight lanes and voiced enthusiastic support for the bridge design known as alternative 4b.
Although it was presented alongside other options generated by the DOT, 4b—which was produced by the nonprofit Asheville Design Center and later altered to meet DOT regulations—has not yet been added to the list of designs to be evaluated by the department’s environmental-impact study.
In June, the DOT accepted 4b as an alternative, cautioning that it still needed refining. Despite subsequent major changes, DOT Human Environment Unit Head Drew Joyner told the crowd that the design would most likely see further changes.
“This is a massive community project, larger than any community project many of us will see in our lifetime,” said Design Center member Michael McDonough. “It is important we get it right.”
“If you build big freeways with more lanes, people will fill it with cars,” said Amina Spangler. “Building more freeways does not alleviate traffic: Building more freeways brings more traffic.”
And for some, the project means big changes regardless of what option the DOT picks. Burton Street resident Sharon Martin said hers is “a neighborhood where, regardless of which alternative is chosen, friends and neighbors will lose their homes.”
Vivian Conley is one of those neighbors. “I am in harm’s way no matter what you pick,” she said. “We live like with some kind of disease, [and] we don’t know when it’s going to take us.” Conley said she’s tired of waiting for the ax to fall and just wants the process of selling her home and moving to be over.
While some pleaded with the DOT to make sure it considers the locally designed bridge alternative and the possibility of fewer lanes through West Asheville, others took a harder line. Such consideration, they said, is required by law—and the department could leave itself open to a lawsuit if it neglected any of its options.
Ron Ainspan, a member of the decade-old I-26 Connector Awareness Group, said the traffic study the DOT used to determine that it needs eight lanes is outdated. Newer models, he asserted, show much less traffic.
“I think the EIS study will be flawed if six lanes—or something less than eight lanes—is not considered,” said Ainspan.
Considering such options is the whole point of the environmental-impact study, emphasized environmental attorney Jim Grode.
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 requires agencies to consider the environmental impact of any project involving federal funding, which is what the EIS is for, Grode told Xpress later. That analysis, he maintains, should include all alternatives. “I think a supplemental EIS draft is absolutely required,” he said.
Others expanded on that theme. Referring to the DOT’s estimated project costs, another resident asked, “Does that include litigation?”
Asheville Design Center representative Joe Minicozzi, a certified city planner, told Xpress after the meeting that he feels the same way. If the highway is now four lanes wide and the DOT is considering eight lanes, the EIS must also consider six lanes.
But no answers to the comments and questions were forthcoming that evening. Public comment will be taken through Oct. 17, Joyner told the crowd. At that time, he said, the DOT will take all the comments into consideration in making changes and reaching an eventual final decision.
Even before the public-comment period began, Joyner had assured the crowd, “This project has had a lot of influence from public comment and a lot of major changes because of public comment.”
To review the various plans and/or make a comment, go to http://ncdot.org/projects/i26connector.