Speaking out

Opponents of widening Interstate 240 to eight lanes through West Asheville had more speakers and seemingly most of the audience in their corner at a public hearing last week.

But proponents had the weight of established business interests and some longstanding Asheville residents on their side.

Nearly 70 speakers offered an earful to the local Transportation Advisory Committee, in a four-hour public hearing held June 12 at A-B Tech. The crowd nearly filled Laurel Auditorium, which seats 400.

Of those who spoke, about 40 argued against eight lanes, around 15 were in favor, and nearly a dozen expressed opinions that didn’t clearly advocate for either position.

“Eight lanes is not progressive,” declared Veronika Gunter, “Eight lanes is failure.”

Gunter –the stepparent of an asthmatic child — along with others who suffer from asthma, torpedoed the eight-lane proposal, which has the initial backing of the N.C. Department of Transportation. DOT studies support a three-mile segment of I-240 through West Asheville widened to eight lanes to handle future traffic.

But proponents such as Mac Swicegood, president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, urged: “We strongly encourage you to vote for the eight lanes, and we would encourage even more lanes.”

The DOT wants the Transportation Advisory Committee to sign off this week on four road-plan alternatives to be considered as part of the DOT’s environmental-impact study for the Interstate 26 Connector. All of the DOT-proposed options involve an eight-lane I-240; the differences lie in how traffic is handled at the French Broad River.

Perhaps the loudest applause of the evening was reserved for Dr. Clay Ballantine, a local physician who serves on the board of the WNC Air Quality Trust. Ballantine detailed the health problems caused by air pollution, which critics of the DOT proposal say an eight-lane 240 would only exacerbate.

Aside from air pollution concerns, opponents of the project said an eight-lane road would damage West Asheville’s neighborhoods and hinder the revitalization of Haywood Road. Many said they thought it would lead to even more traffic, noting that that they don’t want Asheville to turn into an Atlanta-style freeway nightmare. Others were critical of the DOT’s traffic projections and its track record in predicting how much traffic a road will attract.

“They say they’re not trying to cram eight lanes down our throats,” suggested Gloria Good. “But I think that they are.”

Those opposing eight lanes included members of the grassroots I-26 Connector Awareness Group, former Asheville mayor Leni Sitnick, Henderson County community activist Eva Richey, Haywood Road Market Board President Craig White and well-known Fairview resident John Ager. Nelda Holder of the Asheville chapter of the League of Women Voters, asked the committee to demand better documentation from DOT before making a decision.

But some members of the local business community told the Transportation Advisory Committee that they back the widening proposal, mostly because of traffic concerns. Among them were Asheville Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Richard Lutovsky, who said the proposal has the support of the Chamber’s board of Directors. Based on the DOT’s traffic projections and road capacity figures, 30,000 to 40,000 extra vehicles would have to be diverted for the six-lane proposal to work, he said.

An eight-lane 240 is critical to future growth and development of the area, Lutovsky said — adding that an upgraded four-lane project wouldn’t save a significant number of homes and businesses from being taken through eminent domain than an eight-lane project would.

“We feel the time has come,” he declared.

Others lining up in favor of an eight-laner were Buncombe County Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey, former Asheville mayors Lou Bissette and Ken Michalove, Mission St. Joseph’s Health System President/CEO Bob Burgin and Tom Garden, representing the Asheville Board of Realtors. A couple of people — including Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun — urged a wider road because of the problems that emergency workers have in reaching accidents at “malfunction junction,” at the Smokey Park Bridge.

A few speakers, including former state Sen. R.L. Clark, urged the committee to back construction of an “outer loop” around Asheville.

The Transportation Advisory Committee, made of local government officials, is scheduled to take the views expressed into account this week when it votes on a recommendation to the DOT. A public meeting of the committee takes place at noon on Thursday, June 20, in the city of Asheville’s Public Works building, 161 S. Charlotte St.

The decision-makers

Have an opinion on whether Interstate 240 should be widened to eight lanes through West Asheville? The Transportation Advisory Committee will meet at noon on Thursday, June 20, in the city of Asheville’s Public Works building, 161 S. Charlotte St. Here’s a list of who’s on the committee and how to contact them:

Mike Begley, Black Mountain, 669-4000;

Charles Grimes, Biltmore Forest, 274-4839;

Wanda Haynes, Woodfin, 253-4887;

Eddie Henderson, Fletcher, 255-1335;

Holly Jones, Asheville, 281-4804.

Brian Peterson, Asheville, 251-0800;

Bill Stanley, Buncombe County, 250-4001;

Bett Stroud, Weaverville, 645-3912;

Letta Jean Taylor, Montreat, 669-2682; and

Alan Thornburg, DOT representative, 255-7641.

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