I-26 construction delayed a year; Design Center says it was shut out of decision

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has decided to push back construction of the Interstate 26 connector by one year—until 2014—the agency announced April 15. The DOT wants to further study the highway’s impacts on the area and try to reduce one of the project’s most controversial features: its effect on the Burton Street neighborhood. The state agency said it will include the locally developed alternative 4b in its studies.

But the nonprofit Asheville Design Center, which developed 4b, says the DOT shut them out of the decision.

“I found out Wednesday when WLOS dropped by to get my comment,” Chris Joyell, the Design Center’s executive director, told Xpress. “There’s a news camera in my face, and I’m reading the announcement off of a reporter’s iPhone. 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.”

But he added, “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—attended the DOT meeting, Chief Executive Rick Lutovsky confirmed.

The transportation agency’s official announcement says more time is needed to study the projected traffic volume and the environmental impacts 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.”

Lutovsky said he isn’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.”

The longer the project is delayed, however, the more it will cost, he warned. “If it’s not going to be built until 2014, then bids won’t start until 2013. 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, the DOT, originally slated to choose a route for the hotly contested road sometime this summer, will wait until next summer to do so. The agency will also try to reduce the impact on the Burton Street area, where alternative 3 would destroy eight homes and leave much of the rest of the community facing retaining walls. Alternative 4b, endorsed by the Asheville City Council, would take out one Burton Street home, according to the department’s most recent plans.

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners narrowly endorsed alternative 3 back in January, noting at the time that their vote was held, in part, to avoid delaying 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,” he 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 sparked considerable controversy, with proponents of 4b asserting that, by using less land, it would better connect the community, put more property on the tax rolls and displace fewer people. Proponents of 3 counter that 4b might cost too much to build and that 3 reduces driving time through the city.

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, popularly known as “Malfunction Junction.” The project has been in the works for nearly two decades, with the cost now estimated at anywhere from $500 million to more than $800 million, depending on which route the DOT decides to take.

For more information about the I-26 connector project, go to www.mountainx.com/topics/find/I-26.

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