Eight too many? Six too few?

A pair of upcoming meetings may spark a flare-up in the long-simmering controversy over the planned restructuring of Interstate 240, Interstate 26 and the Smokey Park Bridge.

Few local civic issues have aroused more heated debate. Area residents have banded together in support of one or another of several proposals; local politicians have staked out positions on the matter; and the N.C. Department of Transportation, while acknowledging the diverse opinions, has apparently declined to change its plans.

Perhaps the hottest button issue involves the number of lanes the redesigned roadway will have as it cuts through West Asheville. A majority of Asheville City Council members are on record as favoring the six-lane option, as are the Buncombe County Democratic Party and assorted citizen groups, including the I-26 Connector Awareness Group and the WNC Alliance. The Asheville Board of Realtors, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and the Council of Independent Business Owners have weighed in supporting the eight-lane design favored by NCDOT.

In 2002, the Transportation Advisory Committee — made up of members of the governing boards of Asheville, Buncombe County, the county’s other incorporated towns, and Fletcher, plus the local member of the state Board of Transportation — voted for eight lanes, with the proviso that new traffic-model figures might warrant scaling back to six. The DOT released new figures last year, which covered a larger area and used more realistic employment and population-growth projections. But though the revised traffic estimates are more than 35 percent lower, both the TAC and the agency still insist that eight lanes are essential.

I-26 Connector Project Engineer J. Kenneth Burleson told Xpress, “The public informational forum on July 14 is being held to explain to the community the information that is the basis of NCDOT’s recommendation to provide eight through lanes for traffic along the I-240 segment of the I-26 Connector project.”

Framing the lane question is the larger issue of traffic flow on both Interstate 40 and I-26, and each piece of the puzzle involves controversy. The planned widening of I-26 in Henderson County was put on hold last year after U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ruled that the state had failed to thoroughly assess the environmental impact. The DOT, noted Boyle, was “simply excluding consideration of information which might slow the process.”

On June 22, the DOT held a public meeting at the National Guard Armory on Shelburne Road in Asheville to unveil three alternative plans for the I-26/40/240 interchange. About 150 people attended the meeting, Burleson told Xpress. All three alternatives call for more (and more complicated) ramps than the current interchange, and all would provide more options for traffic flow (I-240 westbound to I-40 eastbound and vice versa).

The Buncombe County Democratic Party has asked Democrats on the Asheville City Council for a resolution favoring six lanes. Doug Gibson, a member of Buncombe County Young Democrats, told Xpress, “I think we’re going to see the Metropolitan Planning Organization forced to choose between the wishes of the people most affected by this project and the whims of the bureaucracy.”

On the road

Two more public meetings on other pieces of the transportation puzzle are scheduled for the second week of July:

• On Monday July 12, the NCDOT will hold a public hearing from 4-7 p.m. at the Ramada Plaza Hotel (435 Smokey Park Highway in Asheville) on the proposed addition of lanes to I-40 west of I-26.

• On Wednesday July 14, DOT will host a meeting at 6 p.m. in A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium to discuss traffic projections and the agency’s intention to build eight lanes through West Asheville. <@endbullet>

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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