“I think what people are going to ask for is: ‘No eight lanes.'”
— Betty Lawrence, member of I-26 Connector Awareness Group.
Eight lanes or nothing.
That’s the essence of the N.C. Department of Transportation’s recommendations for widening Interstate 240 through West Asheville, as part of the Interstate 26 Connector.
But a grassroots community group hopes to persuade the DOT at an upcoming public hearing that other options make more sense for the community — especially in light of the region’s air-quality problems.
The public hearing takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 12, in A-B Tech’s Laurel Auditorium, hosted by the local Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC), made up of local government officials.
“The public hearing is to discuss the specific issue of the number of lanes,” says Dan Baechtold, coordinator for the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a public entity that does transportation planning at the local level). “We’d like to keep the public hearing focused on that issue.”
The following week, the TAC will vote on a recommendation to the DOT at noon on Thursday, June 20, at the city of Asheville’s Public Works building on South Charlotte Street.
The DOT is basing its recommendations on its recently-released traffic projections and wants the TAC to sign off on a list of road-plan alternatives it will consider as part of DOT’s environmental impact study. The DOT’s traffic projections for 2025 anticipate a travel demand of 143,000 vehicles per day on Interstate 240, reports Baechtold. The DOT also says that the capacity is 69,000 vehicles per day for a four-lane freeway; 103,500 vehicles per day for a six lanes; and 138,000 vehicles per day for eight-lanes.
All of the DOT-proposed options involve an eight-lane I-240. Although it’s not the subject of the public hearing, the differences between the options lie in how traffic would be handled at the French Broad River.
Called alternatives two and three, they 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; the other would cut through the golf course of the Great Smokies Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort.)
Alternatives four and five both reflect a desire to separate local traffic from interstate 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.
The region’s air quality plays a role in the timing of the Connector project, says Betty Lawrence, a member of the grassroots I-26 Connector Awareness Group. Lawrence anticipates that if the Environmental Protection Agency designates Buncombe County as a “non-attainment area” for the amount of ground-level ozone or fine particulates in the air, that could bring work on the road project to a halt. That would be until a “conformity study” is done that would use computer models to show the effects on air quality of various road widths and how plans would conform with air-quality standards, says Lawrence.
“The alternative would be, let’s do that modeling now,” says Lawrence.
Lawrence cites the example of Boulder, Colo. — a city that heavily invested in its bus system — to show that money usually spent on roads can be devoted to mass transportation, which can slow down the growth in the number of miles people drive locally — even while the population grows at much higher rate.
“We want to see a thorough study of alternatives that don’t put all the money into new traffic lanes, but which is used in a collaborative effort with DOT and all of the local governments in the community as a whole to spend this next 18 months finding out the best way to put these transportation resources, so that we can move around where we need to go and breathe air that isn’t hurting our health,” notes Lawrence.
She sounds hopeful, given the DOT’s willingness to listen to the results of the design forum two years ago — which led to alternatives four and five for handling traffic at the river. And she’s expecting plenty of people to come out to the public hearing to give the DOT a bit more advice.
“I think what people are going to ask for is: ‘No eight lanes,’ ” she predicts.
The I-26 Connector Awareness Group meets at 6 p.m. Tuesdays inside the mall at the Westgate Shopping Center. For more info, call 258-8737, ext. 203, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.i26group.org.