The North Carolina Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced its decision to delay the construction of the long-awaited I-26 connector project one year — until 2014 — to further study impacts in the area. NCDOT will also include the locally developed Alternative 4b in its studies and try to reduce one of the project’s most controversial features — its impact on the Burton Street neighborhood. However, the Asheville Design Center, who developed 4b, say that NCDOT shut them out of the decision.
“I found out Wednesday when WLOS dropped by to get my comment,” Design Center Executive Director Chris Joyell told Xpress. “There’s a news camera in my face and I’m reading the announcement off of a reporter’s I-phone. That’s the way I got this message. Considering that the design center has been a partner with DOT on 4b, to not even call and notify us of the decision was very unprofessional—and I’ve communicated that to DOT.”
However, he added that “we’re really happy to see 4b included and that they’re going to try to address community concerns.”
Representatives of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed Alternative 3, a rival plan, were at the meeting with NCDOT, Chamber CEO Rick Lutovsky confirmed.
“I really can’t speak to that,” NCDOT division construction engineer Rick Tipton, of why the chamber was included and the ADC wasn’t.
NCDOT’s official announcement asserts that more time is needed to study increasing traffic numbers and the environmental impact of the proposed alternatives.
“While I-26 traffic volumes have remained relatively unchanged from previous projections, preliminary results of the traffic forecast show the traffic volumes for the crossing streets, ramps and auxiliary lanes are higher than previously projected,” the announcement reads. “This could create congestion for local traffic if it is not resolved. In an effort to ensure the least impact to and avoid segmentation of local roadways and neighborhoods, careful study of the project’s effect on local interchanges and traffic is currently under way.”
Lipton clarified that the main problem “is the intersecting roads. Traffic is projected to remain fairly stable on I-26 itself.”
Lutovsky said he wasn’t pleased about the delay, but understands the reasons for it.
“We need this project and we need it soon,” he told Xpress. “But it has to be able to handle increased traffic, and it will take some time to ascertain from the new traffic projections what changes will need to be made.”
However, he warned that the longer the project’s delayed, the more its cost will increase.
“If it’s not going to be built until 2014, then bids won’t start until 2013,” Lutovsky said. “While there’s a bit of a dip now, I can’t imagine construction costs being any less expensive by then. I’ve never seen the price of anything drop over that amount of time.”
Under the new schedule, NCDOT, originally slated to endorse an alternative this summer, will wait until next summer to do so, and will include Alternative 4b in its environmental impact studies. It will also try to reduce the impact on the Burton Street area, where Alternative 3, endorsed by the chamber and (narrowly) by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners earlier this year, will destroy 8 homes and leave much of the rest of the community facing retaining walls. Alternative 4b would take one home from the Burton Street area, according to the department’s most recent plans. Asheville City Council has endorsed 4b.
Commissioners voted on their alternative in January, noting at the time that their vote was held, in part, so as not to delay the project.
Joyell was also displeased with the delay.
“If there’s one thing the community agrees on, it’s that we don’t want to delay this project any longer, we want to move on it,” Joyell said. “But while we don’t like the delay, it will give us a lot of time to build our case, to inform the community and refine our designs.”
The proposals for the project have been a source of controversy, with proponents of 4b asserting that, by using less land than 3, it will better connect the community, put more land on the tax rolls and displace less people. Proponents of 3 counter that 4b’s construction price tag might prove too much and that 3 reduces driving times considerably more.
The I-26 Connector project will create a new highway crossing over the French Broad River, widening Interstate 240 in West Asheville and changing the configuration of the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange, known as “Malfunction Junction.” The project has been in discussion for nearly two decades. The estimated price tag for all the work comes in at anywhere from $500 million to more than $800 million, depending on exactly which course DOT decides to take.
The full announcement from NCDOT is below.
—David Forbes, staff writer
RALEIGH — The N.C. Department of Transportation has changed the project schedule for the proposed Interstate 26 Connector in Asheville to further review and revise the proposed designs for the alternatives under study and to prepare a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
The new project schedule, which reflects an approximate one-year delay, is:
n Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement: Spring 2010
n SDEIS Public Hearing: Summer 2010
n Preferred Alternative Chosen: Summer 2010
n Final Environmental Impact Statement: Early 2011
n Record of Decision: Summer 2011
n Begin Right-of-Way Acquisition: Fall 2012
n Begin Construction: Fall 2014
The Federal Highway Administration requires an interchange modification report for all revisions to the interstate system, such as the I-26 Connector. This report looks beyond the project area to ensure the interstate and other interchanges will operate properly when the project is constructed and into the future. For the purpose of this report, the N.C. Department of Transportation is updating the traffic forecasts for the entire project.
While I-26 traffic volumes have remained relatively unchanged from previous projections, preliminary results of the traffic forecast show the traffic volumes for the crossing streets, ramps and auxiliary lanes are higher than previously projected. This could create congestion for local traffic if it is not resolved. In an effort to ensure the least impact to and avoid segmentation of local roadways and neighborhoods, careful study of the project’s effect on local interchanges and traffic is currently under way.
NCDOT anticipates that design modifications may be needed for some of the alternatives. Other design changes may be made in the Burton Street area of Asheville to reduce the impact to residences and businesses, including building retaining walls. These updates will be included in the SDEIS, which will also include alternative 4B.
Since the September 2008 public hearing, NCDOT has been reviewing and addressing the public comments received. That process is almost complete. The responses will be posted on the project Web site (http://www.ncdot.gov/projects/I26Connector/) in the post-public hearing minutes soon.
Another public hearing will be held once the SDEIS is completed. All project alternatives will be displayed and citizens will be able to provide their comments, which will be considered when selecting the preferred alternative.
The NCDOT proposes to widen existing I-26/240 from the I-26/240 interchange to U.S. 19/23/74A (Patton Avenue) and construct an eight-lane, median-divided freeway with fully-controlled access on a new location from Patton Avenue to an interchange at U.S. 19/23/70 and Broadway Street (State Road 1781). The proposed freeway will have 12-foot travel lanes with 12-foot paved shoulders. The proposed roadway improvements will require additional right of way and the relocation of homes and businesses.