High hopes

The push to build I-26 through Madison County originated not in WNC or even elsewhere in North Carolina but in Tennessee, according to a February 1992 report by Calvin Allen in Green Line, the monthly newspaper that spawned Mountain Xpress.

Plans to upgrade U.S. 23 had languished since the ’60s and were all but abandoned by the mid-’80s, wrote Allen. But in 1985, two Johnson City, Tenn., transportation planners crafted a plan to win their city 25 miles of interstate highway. All it took was changing the signs on the stretch of U.S. 23 between Johnson City and Kingsport (which had already been built to interstate standards) to read “Interstate 181.”

“It was the first step in Tennessee’s campaign to persuade North Carolina and three other states to extend I-26 north into the Ohio Valley,” Allen reported.

The transportation planners met with Eddie Williams, CEO of economic development for Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County, Tenn. Williams was sold on the idea, and he put in a request with the Tennessee DOT commissioner. The request was granted, and in 1986, Tennessee included a project to four-lane U.S. 23 from Erwin to the state line in a $3.5 billion, 13-year roads program — and made the project the top priority in its transportation-improvement plan.

After that, Williams and other Tennessee officials began lobbying North Carolina boosters and state officials to push for their own interstate project, wrote Allen. Williams spoke in Asheville twice in 1987; after his address to Leadership Asheville at UNCA in October 1987, the U.S. 23/I-26 Corridor Association was born, recalled Bob Shepherd, then executive director of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, a regional planning agency serving local governments in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.

Co-chaired by then Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, the Corridor Association was made up of civic and business leaders from 18 WNC counties. Citing the economic benefits a new interstate would bring and the safety problems with the existing U.S. 23, the Corridor Association began a campaign that included public meetings and lobbying N.C. Gov. Jim Martin and the state legislature, Bissette said at the time.

A 12-page brochure published by the Association — “WNC at the Crossroads … Crisis or Opportunity” — raised the specter of Tennessee’s new interstate dumping traffic on North Carolina’s two-lane U.S. 23.

The DOT’s Asheville office, however, reports that traffic volume on U.S. 23 near its junction with U.S. 19 has fluctuated over the years — and in fact was lower in some years after the Tennessee stretch of interstate opened in July 1995. In 1994, for example, the average daily traffic count on U.S. 23 was 5,800 vehicles, jumping to 6,600 in 1995. It slipped back to 5,300 in 1996 before accelerating to 8,400 vehicles by 2001.

The Association also touted the supposed economic advantages an interstate would bring: boosting tourism, commerce and industry and cutting transportation costs.

In 1989, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Highway Trust Fund — setting aside most of the $9.3 billion to build a statewide network of four-lane highways — and the project’s future was virtually assured.

But whether interstates automatically benefit the communities along them is a matter of some debate. David T. Hartgen, professor of transportation studies at UNC-Charlotte, says there’s no consensus of opinion on the matter.

Sometimes roads are needed to spur development, according to literature he’s read on the issue. Usually, however, that development is merely diverted from other local sites; occasionally it comes from other regions, Hartgen notes.

And though the professor predicts that the I-26 project will bring change to Madison County, he expects those changes to come in the form of additional second homes (and higher-priced ones, at that), along with some new development — particularly in the service industry.

“Those who believe that the entire county’s going to take off as a result of this, they’re betting against a lot of history that says no,” he observes.

Based on his own detailed research in North Carolina and elsewhere, Hartgen has concluded that the size of a city located at an interstate exit has a bigger influence on local development than the amount of traffic going by. (And since Asheville and Johnson City are two small places, he questions how much traffic is going to travel the new road anyway.)

As an example, the professor offers up Interstate 40 between Asheville and Knoxville, Tenn., noting that the only exits that support much development are the ones near populations centers such as Maggie Valley.

“My advice to the locals is: If you’re opposed to this, breathe easy,” he says. “And if you’re in favor of it, I would say sell short.”

As Hartgen sees it, the main beneficiaries of highways are users — who save time, have fewer accidents, and reduce their transportation costs. Secondary beneficiaries are those landowners who own property in key spots.

The reality of the I-26 project, Hartgen insists, is that the road wasn’t really built for user savings or economic development — but as a way to connect the region and fill gaps in the freeway system.

A better bet for spurring economic development, he maintains, is for communities to invest money in ensuring that their schools are the best in the state.

“You’ll have companies beating down your doors,” Hartgen declares.

— Tracy Rose

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