David and Goliath?

“We’ve been waiting for them to acknowledge that, ‘Yes, we realize we have to fit under your regulations.’”

– WNC air-board member Nelda Holder

Citizens concerned about the I-26 Connector aren’t the only ones who’ve been having a hard time getting clear answers from the state Department of Transportation about the controversial project. Back in September 2002, the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency wrote a letter to Drew Joyner, the DOT official in charge of environmental analysis for the project, asking if his agency was planning to assess the proposed road’s impact on local air quality — which the AQA requires before issuing a permit that would allow the project (scheduled to begin in 2012) to go forward. It took more than a year of repeated requests by the agency — not to mention the threat that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might declare the area in “non-attainment” of federal ozone limits, a lawsuit by environmentalists fighting the expansion of I-26 in Henderson County, and several e-mail and phone messages by this reporter — to secure a reply from the DOT.

It wasn’t the breach of etiquette that worried air-agency officials. If it hadn’t been for this year’s unusually cool, rainy summer, Buncombe County might now be officially deemed in “non-attainment” of federal ozone-pollution standards. In other parts of the country, that designation has forced the curtailment of new highway projects and other construction. To avert the draconian federal restrictions that official non-attainment status brings, Buncombe and other Western North Carolina counties have been working together on an “early-action compact” to voluntarily reduce ozone pollution.

But because at least half of local ozone comes from mobile sources — primarily cars and trucks — the amount of pollution generated by the additional traffic the freeway will bring in is a critical blank spot on WNC’s road map to cleaner air.

At first, it didn’t look as though the DOT even planned to factor air pollution into its plans for I-26. Since WNC wasn’t officially in non-attainment, DOT officials told the air agency, they weren’t required to do an air-quality analysis.

“Our reply to that was, ‘But we have a regulation here in the county that does require that we see an environmental-impact statement [for construction of new highways] and make sure that you do not contravene our standards,’” says AQA board member Nelda Holder. “And we’ve been waiting for them to acknowledge that, ‘Yes, we realize we have to fit under your regulations.’”

Slippery slide rules

By the beginning of this summer, air-agency Director Bob Camby had reported several conversations with Joyner in which the DOT official informally acknowledged that his department would have to follow the local agency’s rules — but Camby still couldn’t get Joyner to put it in writing.

Then, on July 1, a coalition of local environmental groups seeking to stop the expansion of I-26 in Henderson County until the DOT considers the project’s full environmental impact won a major court victory. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle castigated the “gross inaccuracy” of the accident statistics DOT had used to justify adding more lanes to the 13-mile stretch. DOT claimed there were four times as many accidents there as the state average. In fact, the road’s accident rate is one-fourth the statewide average.

“This omission appears to be consistent with defendants’ perfunctory approach to satisfying [environmental-impact requirements] and simply excluding consideration of information which might slow the process,” Judge Boyle ruled.

At around the same time, DOT engineers admitted to another major miscalculation. Back in 2002, while arguing its case to local officials for an eight-lane I-26 Connector through west Asheville, the DOT had insisted that eight lanes were needed because its engineers projected 143,000 vehicles per day would be using that stretch of freeway in 2025. Eight lanes would have a carrying capacity of 138,000 vehicles per day; six lanes could carry 103,500 vehicles, and four lanes, 69,000 vehicles per day.

This summer, however, the DOT released a new projection, based on data that covered a larger area and used more realistic employment and population-growth projections: only 99,100 vehicles per day by 2030. (Even though this figure is less than what a six-lane road could handle, DOT still plans to build an eight-lane Connector.)

A nod to the environment

Despite the court’s findings, at the Air Quality Agency’s September meeting — a full year after the letter was sent — Camby reported that he’d still been unable to obtain a written response from Joyner. That prompted Mountain Xpress to contact the DOT official — several times — and ask him why.

At last, on Oct. 22, Joyner e-mailed a reply.

“I apologize for the delay. … As with all local, state, and Federal review agencies, the WNCRAQA’s comments will be addressed during project development studies and summarized in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).” Joyner sent the same statement, in writing, to the air agency.

Does that mean the DOT will be assessing the environmental impacts of the I-26 Connector — including its potential effects on air quality?

The letter to the air agency didn’t answer that question, but Joyner’s e-mail to Xpress did.

“Yes, we are currently performing project development studies for the I-26 Connector,” the e-mail states. “These studies comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As part of the study, we will complete a DEIS. This document includes our study alternatives and the potential impacts of each alternative on the human and natural environment. The Final Environmental Impact Statement and the Record of Decision, completed later in the study, will document our preferred alternative.

“Air quality analysis is performed on a regional and project level. We are developing an indirect and cumulative effects analysis of this project and other projects along the I-26 corridor. This analysis will consider the regional emissions effects of the proposed transportation system. Results of this analysis as it relates to the I-26 Connector will be included in the DEIS. Project level air quality analysis will also be included in the DEIS.”

According to the DOT’s Web site, a public hearing will be held on the DEIS before it is finalized. The DOT will then be required to identify the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” (aka LEDPA) out of all the route and design options being considered.

Xpress asked Joyner whether the LEDPA could turn out to be not building the Connector at all.

“The no-build alternative (not building the I-26 Connector at all) is included as one of the study alternatives in the project development study and in the DEIS,” his e-mail replied. “The LEDPA is chosen from these study alternatives once they have been analyzed and comments have been received from the local community, local government officials, and review agencies.”

If the DOT’s air-pollution projections for the Connector do turn out to violate the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency’s standards (which are based on federal standards), it doesn’t necessarily mean the local agency will deny the DOT a permit to build.

“I’m hesitant to think that we would have to call off the project,” says board member Holder. “But there would probably need to be some negotiating going on” over adding park-and-ride facilities, bus lanes and other measures to lessen car-and -truck pollution.

“I don’t think we’re at the point of discussing stopping the project. What we wanted to do was get an accounting of the [I-26 Connector's] effect on air quality. And that’s our job — that’s what we’re here for.”

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