Back to the future

Across America, cities are spending billions of dollars to correct their own costly errors. In Cincinnati, Boston and elsewhere, the futuristic highway projects of the 1950s and ’60s — once touted as these metropolises’ saviors — are now being painstakingly dismantled and replaced.

Here in Asheville, one need look no farther than I-240 to comprehend how ugly and destructive an elevated swath of concrete running through a city’s central business district can be. In the name of interstate transport and automobile convenience, whole neighborhoods were either bulldozed or simply severed from the rest of town and left to rot. In the name of commerce, an entire mountain was destroyed so that cars could have dominion over the land.

Now, Asheville is preparing to embark on the biggest local highway-construction project since I-240; but this time, citizens well-versed in the sins of the past are determined that things will be different. The question is: Will the state Department of Transportation listen?

The short answer to that question is yes, they will. But will they heed that local feedback when deciding how the I-26 connector project is to be built?

The DOT has proven its willingness to listen to community concerns. Less than two years ago, the agency co-sponsored (with the city of Asheville) a series of community-based design forums in which more than 700 citizens brainstormed with state officials, seeking alternatives to the proposed eight-lane configuration that would have plowed through West Asheville. The forums attracted plenty of attention and brought together an eclectic mix of people (consider the unlikely pairing of the twin spokespersons for the Community Coordinating Committee, the citizens’ advisory group representing the many local stakeholder organizations — former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette and local environmental activist Brownie Newman). Both the DOT and the participating citizens lauded the forums as a successful and empowering model for consensus-building. But where do we go from there?

No less than four separate I-26-related projects are either in the planning stages or already being built. The new highway is under construction from the Tennessee line through Madison County. When completed sometime next year, it will link to U.S. 19/23 outside Mars Hill. In Asheville, another project — the proposed I-26 connector — will carve a route through town. Also on the table are plans to widen I-26 from four lanes to six in Buncombe County and a similar project in Henderson County.

The DOT’s overall goal is to create an additional north/south interstate highway in North Carolina. If all goes as planned, I-26 will eventually run from Tennessee through Western North Carolina and on to Charleston, S.C. — a major port city on the Eastern seaboard. In theory, the new route will relieve the congestion on I-95 and I-77.

But even as construction workers in Madison County inch their way toward Buncombe, the connector project remains only a proposal. A design has yet to be selected. And Coordinator Dan Baechtold of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a committee of representatives from local municipalities that work with the DOT in planning road and highway projects) told Xpress that the start of the connector project is still several years away. Property acquisition along the right of way is slated to begin in 2004, said Bechtold, with actual construction commencing in 2006. On that time line, construction would be finished sometime in 2010 — some seven years after the completion of the Madison County section.

Some predict that the opening of the Madison County portion of I-26 next year will funnel hordes of cars and trucks streaming down from the north onto an already-overburdened interchange, creating major congestion on 19/23 outside Asheville. APAC-Carolina President Otis Vaughn, whose construction firm is doing the work in Madison County, is one of those forecasting traffic snafus for the city. (I-26 advocates made the same arguments during their original push for a north/south interstate in WNC, but the predicted gridlock at the state line — where Tennessee’s sleek superhighway abruptly collides with the winding, narrow U.S. Hwy. 23 North Carolina — has yet to materialize.)

Others, however, disagree. Ron Ainspan, a member of the I-26 Connector Awareness Group (a grassroots organization formed in 1998 to fight the original eight-lane design), argues that it’s time to rethink transportation planning in general. The DOT, he says, projects that only 10-20 percent of the increased traffic brought by the new highway will be through-travelers; the rest will be local drivers. If those numbers are correct, says Ainspan, do we really need an eight-lane highway?

In the past, he explains, highways through Appalachia were viewed as economic-development tools. But Ainspan maintains that the type of growth associated with highways doesn’t always benefit the affected communities. Typically, he notes, we end up seeing fast-food chains and big-box retailers spring up, often to the detriment of local businesses. “DOT’s sole focus was to move traffic through a community, not how traffic will affect a community,” charges Ainspan, asking, “What price are we willing to pay just to move traffic on major interstates?”

Ainspan and many others involved in the DOT community forums say we need to change the way we think about transportation planning. Raising issues that are at the forefront of growth-and-development debates throughout the country, these transportation activists speak of “smart growth,” public transportation, retooling traffic-forecasting models and using intelligent traffic controls — approaches that they say could be funded by some of the hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government now spends each year building ever-bigger highways.

Ainspan likes to cite the concept of “induced traffic” — the idea that building more lanes to accommodate more cars is only a short-term solution at best. In the long run, so this theory goes, those additional lanes will actually create more traffic. Atlanta is often cited as a case study in induced traffic. Despite massive amounts of highway construction over many years, that city still struggles with monumental traffic congestion. Ainspan reasons, “There are better ways to spend our transportation money than by continuing our dependence on the interstate system, but our knee-jerk response has always been to build more.”

For now, how the I-26 connector will look remains an unanswered question, but the DOT’s review list now includes two alternative proposals added in response to the community feedback from the forums, in addition to two variants of the original proposal. The agency is awaiting an updated traffic forecast commissioned by the city of Asheville in response to the public outcry about the project. The results should be available within the next month, said Baechtold. After that, the DOT will solicit public input on the number of lanes.

Once that’s been determined, DOT will move forward with one of the four plans for the connector. The first two involve building a bridge across the French Broad River (north of the Smokey Park Bridge) to connect I-240 with 19/23. (One alternative would run the connector through the Westgate Shopping Center site; the second would cut through the golf course of the Holiday Inn Great Smokies Sunspree Resort.)

Alternatives three and four both reflect a desire to separate local traffic from through traffic — making Patton Avenue a boulevard connecting Asheville and West Asheville. One plan calls for building three bridges over the French Broad north of the Smokey Park Bridge. The other plan calls for building a single bridge parallel to the Smokey Park Bridge.

For the moment, it’s a waiting game, with all eyes focused on the soon-to-be-released traffic forecasts. Meanwhile, however, a diverse group of local folks is staying focused on the issues raised by the I-26 discussion. In the process, a community facing continued growing pains is building consensus on an issue of colossal importance to its future.

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