Sometimes, Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield wishes the Interstate 26 Connector project would just disappear.
“It makes me angry. It makes me sad. It makes me anxious for the future of our city,” Mayfield told a crowd gathered to discuss plans for the roadway on Dec. 4. “I literally dream about this project — although unpleasant dreams are usually called nightmares.”
Upgrades to the tangled web of interchanges from the I-26 intersection at Interstate 40 through the gnarled conduit of traffic on the Bowen Bridge have been on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s radar since at least 1989. Along the way, business groups, community members, environmental advocates, designers and elected officials have all weighed in with differing visions about how the project should function and look — and whether it should happen at all.
The project took what could be one of its final steps toward construction during a public hearing and drop-in session on Dec. 4 at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, an event that drew between 400 and 500 participants.
Many of those people confronted NCDOT during the public hearing portion of the evening, raising concerns about traffic noise, the scale of the project and its impact on those now living and working in the proposed right of way. Some commenters encouraged NCDOT to take the design back to the drawing board or delay construction on parts of the project while developing a new plan capable of winning broader support.
Mayfield, meanwhile, said the fight has never been to kill the project. “If I thought there was a way to stop this project, I would be with you,” she told the crowd. Instead, she said, city officials have been pushing for ways to make it better.
Montford resident Suzanne Devane of the group Don’t Wreck Asheville called the designs “a horror show.”
“It’ now become this gargantuan, stupid project that resembles octopus tentacles taking care of every traffic problem that Asheville has,” she said before the meeting. “And it shouldn’t be doing that. It should just be a straight shot.”
NCDOT anticipates crews will begin construction on the $950 million project in 2020. Federal funding will pay 80 percent of the project cost; state funding will cover the rest.
Planners have divided the project into three sections. Section C, the southernmost portion, would reconstruct the existing interchange where I-40 and I-26/I-240 intersect. New circular ramps would allow traffic to easily transition between highways. The plan would also widen I-40 from a point near the Smokey Park Highway interchange to the Brevard Road interchange.
The middle part of the project, section A, would widen I-26/I-240 from four to six lanes and establish a greater degree of separation between Amboy Road and the interstate. An upgraded Amboy Road interchange would include two roundabouts to the north and south, connected by a stretch of road that would run under I-240. Extensions to the north and south would connect the Amboy Road roundabouts to Brevard Road. These extensions would run parallel to I-26/I-240.
Section B would have the most direct impact on downtown Asheville and would establish Patton Avenue as a local boulevard rather than part of I-240 and future I-26.
Three new flyover bridges would carry I-26 and I-240 traffic over the French Broad River. One bridge would serve I-26 eastbound and westbound traffic, while two bridges would carry I-240 traffic.
Derrick Weaver, the NCDOT project manager, anticipates the B section will take about five years to complete. The C section will take about four years, and the A section will require two to three years. Weaver said the sections will have staggered start times, with the goal of completing all parts around the same time.
Many people at the drop-in session seemed intent on developing a more thorough understanding of the project, which was displayed over a series of horizontal maps pinned to boards in the center of the hotel’s ground floor ballroom. “It just looks like such a crazy spaghetti that I’m trying to get my brain around [it],” said North Asheville resident Ann Von Brock.
While she wished NCDOT had considered alternative transportation options to reduce traffic volume as part of the design, Brock said it makes sense to rework road infrastructure to alleviate congestion. “I hate it, but change is inevitable,” she said. “It just looks so spaghetti-ish. That’s what bugs me.”
Sherman Fearing, another Asheville resident who attended the drop-in session, said he’s glad that the plans would separate Patton Avenue traffic from vehicles merging from I-240.
“Hopefully, that’ll lessen the load that we’re seeing through town now across the bridge,” he said. Rush-hour gridlock, he said, makes trips into town for dinner or shopping untenable. “Forget it between 4:30 and 6:30 [p.m.],” he said. “It’s bumper-to-bumper.”
Fearing believes the project is the price Asheville has to pay for the influx of traffic caused by the city’s hotel boom. “It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “This road system is completely antiquated, and given all the hotel rooms that have been developed here in the last five, six, seven years …, now we have to answer to this.”
Gateway to downtown
City leaders believe the changes to Patton Avenue could create a welcoming new front door to downtown Asheville. “Patton Avenue can be Asheville’s grand boulevard, our Champs-Elysées, our Las Ramblas,” Mayfield said, “an iconic street where people live and work, shop and eat and travel safely on foot, by bike, in buses and cars.”
For that to happen, Mayfield said the NCDOT would have to follow the design priorities of the city of Asheville. Although many of those suggestions have found their way into the design, Mayfield said there are a number of larger changes she hopes the city can still negotiate with NCDOT.
One alteration would move a proposed traffic signal on Patton Avenue farther east and remove an exit from I-240, which would make more room for development.
Ideally, Mayfield said, the land would be set aside for mixed-use projects. “We wouldn’t want this to be a whole avenue of hotels or a whole avenue of breweries,” she said. “That’s not the city’s vision for this.”
Mayfield said additional changes could reduce the total footprint of the I-26 project. For example, she proposed, concrete islands at intersections could be eliminated, reducing the project’s cumulative impact on adjacent property owners.
Mayfield also hopes to see some of the smooth curves at the ends of exit ramps sharpened to slow motorists down as they exit onto a local road.
Devane, however, believes the city’s design aspirations — specifically, its plans for Patton Avenue — are not compatible with the overarching goals of the project. “This has always been a federal highway project,” she said. “This has never been a Champs-Elysées project; this has never been an economic development project.”
City leaders, Devane said, are moving forward without a guarantee that their vision for the project will be realized. “All of it is on a hope and a whim,” she said.
“Something needs to be done to fix the congestion; something needs to be done to make I-26 safer to access for people going from Charlotte all the way to Johnson City,” Devane continued. “But this humongous project is not the answer.”
The project did receive some praise from members of the community. Michelle Pace Wood, representing the Enka-Candler Business Association, said her organization has been pushing for the I-26 Connector since 1986. “Our area is cut off from the downtown, and we need better access,” she said. The project, she predicted, would help commerce in Buncombe County.
NCDOT spokesperson David Uchiyama said the area impacted by the project is “essentially set,” but there could be room for refinements within that footprint based on comments collected at the meeting and in the weeks leading up to NCDOT’s Friday, Jan. 4, comment deadline.
The project’s right of way is anticipated to displace 114 homes, 36 businesses and 2 nonprofits, a reduction from the impact NCDOT estimated in 2015. Plans on the table then would have affected 31 more homes and 20 more businesses.
Zin Vetro bought his house on New Jersey Avenue about a year ago. Now, it’s in the middle of NCDOT’s proposed right-of-way. “I knew it was a possibility,” Vetro said, but until he was confronted with the reality of the highway expansion, he didn’t anticipate that the project would have such a direct impact on him personally.
Vetro said he’s concerned that he and his partner, Mary Kelley, will be priced out of their neighborhood. “They were talking about that they would pay market value at the time of purchase, but that doesn’t account for being able to find a house again … because the prices are just going to continue to go up,” he said.
Kelley co-owns Fleetwood’s on Haywood Road, a combination shop, bar and wedding chapel. The building she and her business partners lease would also be removed to make way for the expansion. Additionally, Kelley’s kids go to school in West Asheville, and she doesn’t know yet if they’ll have to move schools. “It’ll all depend on how much we get and if we can afford to stay in West Asheville and find a three-bedroom house … that’s in our budget,” she said.
Right of way agents will approach affected property owners with the goal of making them whole for the value of their home or business, Uchiyama said.
Out of scale
Robert Sauer lives in North Asheville and owns a building on Riverside Drive that he leases to a business setting up for hemp production. He said the scale of the project is unsettling and seems more appropriate for a larger city.
“I’m concerned that we’re overbuilding, not knowing what the future traffic is going to be,” he said. “I do think it needs improvement. It’s not a good road system as it is.”
Dave Johnson, a 20-year resident of Asheville and retired professor of city planning, said during public comment that he’s been concerned about the I-26 Connector project for a long time. As is, he believes the project would be damaging to Asheville.
“It’s almost too late, some people say, to do it right. I’m not so sure about that,” Johnson said. “Suppose I brought a bag of coins here worth $1,000,000,000 — a billion dollars — and said, ‘OK, here’s $1,000,000,000, Asheville. Spend it on transportation.’ Would we do this? I don’t think so.”
Like Sauer, Johnson believes the project is out of scale with size of Asheville and fails to take into account advances in technology that could make aspects of the design obsolete. “Go back to the drawing board,” he said. “Look at what’s ahead.”
Responding to a question from the audience about whether the project could still be stopped, Jamille Robbins, the moderator for the public hearing and a member of the department’s environmental analysis unit, said nothing is a done deal until the new concrete hits the ground.
“That’s a fact,” he said, as members of the audience applauded his answer. “That’s just a fact.”