Bids for main parts of I-26 Connector project come in hundreds of millions of dollars above projected cost

A computer-generated rendering shows a portion of Section B of the I-26 Connector project, which will cross the French Broad River and then tie into U.S. 19/23/70 south of Broadway. Actual plans may vary from the artist renderings, the North Carolina Department of Transportation notes // Photo provided by NCDOT

by John Boyle,

Bids for the main sections of the I-26 Connector in Buncombe County are at least $184 million higher than the projected cost of $915.8 million, according to N.C. Department of Transportation documents, likely delaying the project and pushing its price higher.

The bids were opened Tuesday in Raleigh and were livestreamed by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The bids were for the two main sections of the project, which the NCDOT calls Section B and Section D. These sections will involve new bridges over the French Broad River and new sections of interstate to connect Interstate 26 above and below Asheville, as well as improvements to Riverside Drive.

“All three bids opened on Feb. 20 came in higher than expected and not within the acceptable range of the NCDOT’s engineer’s estimate,” NCDOT spokesperson David Uchiyama said via email. “As the design-build process allows, the department intends to work with all three contractors to get their best and final offers on the project.”

The NCDOT would not provide the engineer’s estimate. NCDOT’s official page for the project lists the cost for the entire project, which has five sections, at $1.2 billion. A recording of the livestream is not available, according to NCDOT.

“NCDOT will release the engineer’s estimate upon completion of the procurement process,” Uchiyama said.

The contractor bids, according to Uchiyama, came in as follows (dollar figures are rounded off):

  • Archer Wright Joint Venture – $1.1 billion
  • Balfour Beatty Infrastructure – $1.3 billion
  • Flatiron-United-BDC Joint Venture – $1.9 billion

“Obviously, there’s just some steps here the department is trying to figure out, and we’re trying to figure out, too,” said Kevin Ott, with Archer-Wright Joint Venture and the person listed as the contact on the company’s bid. He added that bidding exceeding estimates like they it in this case is not the “typical practice.”

Asheville Watchdog sought comment from Flatiron-United-BDC Joint Venture and Balfour Beatty Infrastructure but did not receive responses by the time of publication.

While the engineer’s estimate is not available, the Connector project is listed on the State Transportation Improvement Program with information about the sections’ “remaining project costs.”

A North Carolina Department of Transportation map shows the I-26 Connector project in red shading.

Section B involves building an interstate roadway, on a new location, from the Haywood Road interchange north across the French Broad River and then tying into U.S. 19/23/70 south of Broadway. This section includes multiple bridges and has a projected cost of $884.3 million, according to the STIP.

Section D involves improvements along Riverside Drive from Hill to Broadway streets. It has a projected cost of $31.5 million, making the total projected cost of both sections $915.8 million.

Construction is set to begin this year on both projects, according to the STIP, but the high bids will likely cause a delay in the project, which has been planned and discussed since 1989.

Ken Putnam, who retired Jan. 1 as the city of Asheville Transportation director, previously spent three decades with the NCDOT. Putnam said he would guess that the high bids would probably cause a delay of “no more than six months.”

“I think they’re still on target,” Putnam said. “I don’t think it’s gonna mess up the overall schedule right yet.”

Tristan Winkler, director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, watched the livestream and said he didn’t find the high bids surprising, considering the escalation in prices for all construction projects since the pandemic. French Broad MPO facilitates discussions within the region about which projects are prioritized.

“This is something that has been debated within our region for a long, long time,” Winkler said. “So I think there’s going to be a lot of interested parties in knowing just what exactly this means, in terms of what are the costs that are going to be absorbed? And what does it mean for the project timeline?”

Winkler said transportation projects across the board, “whether that’s highway or greenways, or sidewalks,” have seen major increases in costs.

‘Design-build’ bids

Putnam noted that these bids are different from traditional construction ones because they are “design-build,” meaning the contractor must finish the design of the project, conduct the right-of-way purchases and then do the construction. The design likely will be about 30%-40% complete, Putnam said.

The winning bidder will then essentially get a “lump sum,” Putnam said.

“It’s a one-lump sum — there’s no more money for them,” Putnam said. “So once they settle and agree what the price is going to be, that’s it. So they’re either going to make a profit, or they’re going to end up losing a little bit of money.”

The entire 7-mile long project consists of five sections — Sections B and D, and these three additional sections:

  • Section AA/AB — Upgrades to I-240, as well as to interchanges at Brevard and Amboy roads, from the I-26/I-240 interchange with I-40 to Haywood Road.
  • Section AC — Includes initial improvements at the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange, and along I-40 between the interchange and U.S. 19/23 (Smokey Park Highway).
  • Section C — Improvements to the I-40 interchanges with Smokey Park Highway, I-26/I-240 and Brevard Road.

State Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, said “everybody’s costs have gone up” on all kinds of projects, but a potential increase in Connector costs could have a ripple effect.

“I think the project will get built, but it may be that as a result of this, other projects get pushed back,” Mayfield said.

The project has been controversial for decades, with some Asheville residents decrying it as too big, not aesthetically pleasing and comprising too many lanes. Proponents have argued that it will relieve several bottlenecks coming into Asheville and make it much simpler to follow I-26, which now involves a sometimes perilous trip across the Smokey Park Bridge and a ride on I-240.

“The proverbial question is, ‘Why does the project have to be so [expletive] big?” said Joe Minicozzi, a certified city planner and the principal of Urban3 planning group in Asheville, which worked with the city and the NCDOT to make the project more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, and more aesthetically pleasing.

While Minicozzi is still not a fan of the scope of the project and its huge “flyover” bridges, he said the high bids are just “a speed bump” in the process. Still, he maintains the project became “bloated,” and delays have come in large part because the NCDOT “has continually produced designs that hadn’t met community expectations.”

“Engineers are OK with more concrete, because someone else is picking up the tab,” Minicozzi said. “We, locally, get stuck with the impacts of more pollution, run-off, traffic, and it also induces more sprawl.  We also lose taxable real estate in the heart of our community that could be put to productive use for our local economics.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service please visit


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One thought on “Bids for main parts of I-26 Connector project come in hundreds of millions of dollars above projected cost

  1. DWAC

    Design-Build agreement by Asheville was naive. No contractor is going to build something to lose “a little bit of money”; instead NCDOT will settle for the cheapest way to do things and all the community agreements in the world are not going to change that.

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