A special Asheville City Council work session on the much-disputed I-26 connector project failed to live up to its advance billing. According to a city press release, state and federal highway officials were supposed to be making a presentation “regarding traffic flow with eight versus six lanes.” That’s been the major sticking point on the project for years, with some city residents and Council members arguing for a six-lane road and the state Department of Transportation asserting that eight lanes are needed to accommodate future traffic volume.
Last year, City Council asked the DOT to conduct another study using state-of-the-art CORSIM computer software. Advocates of a six-lane road have frequently criticized the traffic projections the state used to justify building a wider highway, which were based on the Federal Highway Capacity Manual, a model critics say is outdated and less accurate than CORSIM.
State officials agreed to fund another study, and after analyzing the new data, city Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek told Council at a July 19 work session that having eight lanes would save drivers a mere nine seconds in travel time during the afternoon rush hour in the year 2030. As for the morning rush hour, Butzek said there “wasn’t a significant difference between six and eight lanes.”
Yet the DOT, using the same numbers, has continued to maintain that eight lanes are needed. And rather than explaining the discrepancy as expected, the officials who spoke at the Oct. 12 work session merely reiterated the agency’s intention to move forward with an eight-lane connector. Don Volker of the Federal Highway Transportation Safety Office (which will fund the bulk of the project) put it bluntly: “We consider the issue closed.”
DOT Traffic Engineer Kevin Lacy gave a brief presentation that consisted mostly of information about the state’s method for rating highway capacity.
Roads with an A rating, he noted, have unimpeded flow; roads rated F have “exceeded capacity and have large queues of traffic, but have not gridlocked.” This was no news to Council, which has heard similar presentations in the past.
But what Lacy didn’t explain was how the state had come to the conclusion that a six-lane configuration would produce D and E ratings in different sections of the highway, whereas Asheville’s traffic engineer, using the same information, had determined that the road would have a C rating, with only a few sections falling to the D level. After Lacy’s presentation, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower commented: “All of the studies have produced different results. It’s all very hazy — and after this discussion, it’s still very confusing.”
Later in the meeting, Mumpower asked Alan Thornburg, who sits on the state Board of Transportation, if eight lanes were a “done deal.” Thornburg replied: “Our intention is to move forward. Our requirements have been met.”
At that point, Council member Terry Bellamy went on the offensive, noting that when the DOT had held community planning meetings on the project back in 2001 and 2002, the public had indicated support for six lanes. “You say that the community should unite behind you. … We did unite — behind six lanes. We were united, and now that’s being ignored.”
Thornburg replied: “We did not have the level of analysis we have now.” His answer drew laughs from the audience.
Bellamy continued: “This is disheartening — this full-court press, regardless of what we say. It’s disappointing.”
But Mumpower disagreed, asserting, “Public input does not allow the public to control the process — that’s why we have experts.”
Council member Holly Jones also seemed frustrated by the turn things had taken, saying: “The purpose of this meeting is to explain the differences in data and conclusions. I still don’t understand the different interpretations!”
The meeting ended soon after. The next step is for the DOT to complete an environmental-impact analysis of the area under consideration. Construction is slated to begin in 2012.