Despite a less-than-encouraging response by the state Department of Transportation, Asheville is continuing to explore a locally developed plan for the I-26 connector.
Representatives from the DOT, the Federal Highway Administration and several engineering consulting firms weighed in at City Council’s June 26 meeting, declaring the Asheville Design Center’s alternative plan infeasible for the project, which has been mired in controversy for years.
“Our review today indicates that the design standards will not be met,” said Don Voelker of the Federal Highway Administration.
The nonprofit Asheville Design Center, a volunteer effort by local architects and engineers, first presented its plan to City Council back in May; since then, it’s been winning support both in the community and on Council. The group maintains that its approach—which would separate the traffic on Interstates 26 and 240 and remove all freeway traffic from Patton Avenue—would cost less and use less land than any of the DOT’s four alternatives. DOT officials first saw the proposal during a June meeting attended by city, county and state representatives, and the agency has included it in an environmental-impact study that’s now in the works.
Despite strong local support, however, both state and federal transportation officials said the plan fails to meet the standards for height and width, as well as entrance- and exit-ramp specifications.
The current design, they said, would have to be significantly altered—at which point it would closely resemble one of the DOT’s existing alternatives. As a result, “We are not recommending that alternative be carried out,” said DOT Preconstruction Director Debbie Barbour.
Some Council members, however, weren’t ready to let go of the idea so easily, and Council member Brownie Newman asked City Manager Gary Jackson to explore how the city could assist the Design Center and report back to Council with a recommendation. Council member Robin Cape and Vice Mayor Holly Jones, both of whom were out of town on vacation, have spoken very favorably about the Design Center’s work in the past.
“For the first time in the history of this project, we’ve get the bulk of the community excited about it,” noted Council member Bryan Freeborn. “Let’s throw the resources at it [that] we need to get a product we can all support.”
The long and winding road
The I-26 connector has been a bone of contention for decades. To those who fear that yet another giant interchange tearing through West Asheville would further wound a community already sliced by prior highway projects, it’s a grim specter; to fuming drivers snared in the bottleneck of “Malfunction Junction,” it’s a long-delayed boon.
From the DOT’s perspective, however, time is of the essence; the department would like to settle on a plan by January, said state Board of Transportation member Alan Thornburg. A new Design Center proposal adjusted to meet federal design guidelines would delay the overall process, he noted.
“We would never not consider an alternative,” DOT Consultant Engineer Derrick Weaver told Council, “but it would have consequences.”
Throughout the discussion, highway officials repeatedly emphasized that trying to bring the Design Center plan up to code would only make it more closely resemble one of the DOT’s own plans.
More doom and gloom came from Voelker, who reminded Council that the DOT relies on federal money, which has already gone into the development of existing plans. And, he noted, time is money.
“It is not something I would want to do,” said Voelker—“keep spending money on something that will not meet Interstate design standards.”
Some Council members seemed to take the agency’s response harder than others, but most appeared to agree that whatever direction the DOT decides to go in, it needs to pay more attention to aesthetics.
“Asheville relies on its beauty to survive,” declared Mayor Terry Bellamy. “The alternatives you put forward don’t support that.”
Council member Jan Davis brought up the new bridge in Charleston, S.C., noting that such designer projects often require lobbying at the state level. “I’m concerned we don’t have that clout,” he said. “But [Asheville] is a jewel to the state of North Carolina.” Building “another concrete bridge over that river,” said Davis, would be wronging the city.
And despite the DOT’s repeated protestations, Bellamy seemed unconvinced that the situation is as dire as they maintained. “I think you smart engineers from Raleigh could figure it out if you had a little more time,” said the mayor.
Not licked yet
Meanwhile, Design Center Chairman Alan McGuinn, an architect by trade, said he was confident the group could meet the design requirements without compromising the project’s unique qualities. Speaking to Council, McGuinn ticked off a list of items he thought could easily be remedied—including incorporating a cable bridge that would reduce the height of the roadway while enhancing the overall aesthetics.
“The true advantage of our scheme,” he emphasized, “is that it preserves land for development in the city.” That, in turn, reduces the amount of money needed to acquire rights of way.
Outside the Council chamber, McGuinn told Xpress that the DOT’s own proposals aren’t always consistent with federal regulations either.
“They didn’t try to make this plan work; they were showing why it couldn’t,” he said. McGuinn also maintained that the DOT’s presentation actually confirmed that some elements of the Design Center plan, such as the double-decker bridge, could work. “But I’m an eternal optimist anyway,” he added.
Newman, meanwhile, urged his colleagues to give the project a helping hand, saying, “Let’s give these people who have worked so hard in the community the resources to see if this can be made to work.”
Meanwhile, the DOT officials remained vague as to whether the agency would be willing to give serious consideration to a retooled Design Center plan. And in that kind of atmosphere, Bellamy was leery of spending city money, saying, “That’s a hard pill to swallow.”
A big prospect
If the Township of Leicester incorporated, it would not only be more than half again as big as Asheville—it would be the sixth-largest town in North Carolina, outgoing Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford noted in his final appearance before Council.
The township has filed an incorporation petition with the General Assembly, and though the state will have the final word on the issue, Asheville’s endorsement—or lack of one—could influence the recommendation of the Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Incorporations.
“We’ve worked for two years to get to this place,” Randy Teague, a member of Leicester’s interim Town Council, told City Council.
Based on Leicester’s size and potential impact on Asheville’s future annexation options, Shuford recommended that Council not endorse the effort. Asheville and surrounding towns such as Woodfin and Weaverville, he said, have achieved their current size via an “organic process over time.
“Take a good look at this and the scale of the town on our periphery,” continued Shuford, displaying a map of the two entities. If incorporated as shown, he noted, Leicester would cover 68 square miles compared with Asheville’s 44 and would have a population of 16,800—less than one-quarter of Asheville’s 73,000 people. The city, Shuford estimated, would lose about $20,000 a year in sales taxes to Leicester, which would also gain the ability to annex.
Although some Leicester residents have concerns about annexation, there are other reasons for the community’s turn toward self-governance, according to incorporation spokeswoman Pat Cothran. Buncombe County now determines what funding Leicester gets and how it’s spent—money, notes Cothran, that “we would love to have right here to do things for our town.”
As Teague pointed out to Council, the Leicester Highway is now five lanes wide, and there are plans to extend that widening farther north. That will bring inevitable change to the community, which Cothran says Leicester would like to have some control over. “We don’t want to wait until Leicester Highway is another Patton Avenue,” she notes.
Although Council member Carl Mumpower‘s motion to support the incorporation failed for lack of a second, some on Council did say they would like to see more on the idea as the petition moves through the General Assembly.
Patching up the park
A consent-agenda item allocating $111,500 for work at Richmond Hill Park didn’t sit well with Bryan Freeborn, however; the situation there, he said, reflects “one of the worst decisions made by the city in parks-and-recreation facilities.”
Some of that money will pay for work that the National Guard was supposed to do. In other cases, the city merely underestimated the cost of work it already planned to do.
In 2004, Asheville cut a deal giving the Guard a portion of the park property as a site for a new armory in exchange for guardsmen doing the grading for a planned parking area, entrance road and two baseball fields. Amid the controversy surrounding the resulting environmental violations, City Council canceled the baseball fields but still had to spend money to control erosion and runoff.
But the Guard has fallen behind on its project schedule, leaving the city with the choice of either finishing those projects itself or waiting until the Guard catches up.
The money, the city manager explained, would fund completion of the entrance road and environmental controls, bringing the total city investment in the park to $350,000. City Attorney Bob Oast said negotiations with the National Guard over compensation for environmental violations at the site are nearly complete.
In a separate vote, the budget amendment passed 4-1 with Freeborn opposed. “I continue to express my displeasure at how this project was handled,” he said.