Bumpy roads ahead

Welcome to Asheville, Mary Clayton, where the roads can get bumpy.

Clayton came to town recently to grease the wheels for the I-26 Connector project. She’s a planning consultant with a reputation for helping communities and departments of transportation find common ground on highway issues where none seemed possible.

In her first week as facilitator for the upcoming design forum on the contentious Connector project, she received a healthy dose of mountain independence, neighborhood solidarity, county and city polarity, environmental activism — and one grumpy mayor, who was stricken with dental pain.

“In the first eight minutes I was here, I heard frustration and anger more times than I ever have [on a project],” remarked Clayton, as she kicked off the first of two focus-group meetings with some of the project’s most vocal proponents and critics. The purpose of the meetings, she said, was to determine the “critical issues” to be addressed at the forum. And Clayton blamed what she called the “truckload of confusion” on the issues for standing in the way of a highway design that would benefit all of Western North Carolina. “It’s important to get past the crap and solve it,” she noted succinctly.

Back in December, at community meetings in West Asheville and with the local Transportation Advisory Committee, citizens turned out in big numbers to voice displeasure with the DOT’s plan for the I-26 Connector. The massive project — which, as currently envisioned, would include expanding I-240 to eight lanes through West Asheville, and gouging out the Westgate Shopping Plaza to link I-26 with U.S. 19-23 — is expected to cost more than $140 million and require several traffic-disrupting years to complete. Asheville’s City Council responded by asking the DOT to join forces for a forum to get citizen consensus on the project’s design.

DOT has a reputation in these parts for not being particularly receptive to public input on its projects, certainly the agency created some enemies in Asheville when it decided to widen Broadway Avenue to four lanes. So it was surprising to some when the DOT reacted favorably to the idea of the design forum, as long as it didn’t put the project behind schedule.

“We hope this [forum] will allow us to inform the public about this important project and receive public input in a manner that will result in a better road for Asheville and all of North Carolina,” wrote DOT Project Manager William Gilmore in a letter to Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick.

Roger Derrough, who owns Earth Fare — a Westgate Plaza business that sites square in harm’s way — said before the meeting that he’s hopeful the design forum can produce a project that will benefit the whole area. He’s still a little suspicious, however, about the DOT’s motives for participating in the public forum.

“I get nervous,” he confessed. “I want to make sure the city is really driving the project, and not just the DOT investing time to minimize the alterations.”

Clayton (who won the stamp of approval of the I-26 Awareness Group, a citizens’ group that wants to reconfigure the project) was hired by the city and DOT to facilitate the design forum. The actual forum will happen sometime in the near future, after several public-information meetings. First up, however, were the focus-group meetings held on March 10.

In the first meeting, things started off with a decidedly touchy-feely approach: Laying out the ground rules, Clayton called for increased mutual trust and understanding, based on a clearer knowledge of the facts. She even tried a few call-and-response tactics: “After [this meeting], you will have a new sense of respect for this project” (a smattering of applause); or, “You may feel this project was imposed on the community” (a more resounding “Yes!”).

With the 25 participants facing one another in a semicircle, Clayton went around the room asking people to talk about themselves and what they think is good and bad about Asheville’s relation to the Connector project.

Asheville native Mac Swicegood was the first to speak. Swicegood — the president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, and a well-known proponent of the Connector’s alleged economic benefits for this area — asserted, “Young people can’t afford to live here.” He revealed that he has two grown kids who live elsewhere, because they’re unable to find well-paying jobs in Asheville.

Sitting next to Swicegood was the mayor. “I’m in severe dental pain,” Sitnick reported, “so today is not a good day to mess with me.” She went on to counter Swicegood with the story of her own two children — who, she pointed out, both live in Asheville and have good jobs.

And so it went around the room, with arguments for and against the highway: I-26 serves all of Western Carolina, not just Asheville. But the highway will run through downtown Asheville and directly affect neighborhoods such as Chicken Hill and Montford. The Connector will create jobs by attracting new businesses to town. But it will also create urban sprawl and air pollution. DOT engineers predict the need for eight lanes on I-240 to compensate for increased local-vehicle traffic by 2020. But eight lanes could also produce traffic-induced gridlock. Tennessee has done its part to make U.S 19-23 safe for tractor-trailer traffic, and now North Carolina needs to do its part. We do need the Connector built. But we don’t want it so big and intrusive.

And, of course, there were those who expressed disillusionment with the whole notion of more highway projects in Western North Carolina. “How many traffic engineers per square foot do you have in Raleigh, and how good is your traffic down there?” asked Forrest MacGregor, a local businessman and environmental activist.

The only issue that folks did seem to agree on, the mayor noted, was that something needs do be done about the dangerous exit ramps around the Smokey Park Bridge. “[The bridge] wasn’t designed for interstate traffic,” she said.

When the two-hour session ended, some participants were grumbling that “not all the issues got on the table.” Asheville Planning Director Scott Shuford said that the second meeting, held that afternoon, was a lot more focused, and more of the issues got discussed.

Now, Shuford said, Clayton has to write a report on all the issues and come up with a plan for presenting them at the forum. In the meantime, he said several public-information meetings will take place, “to make sure we are all talking the same language.”

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