Connector controversy

Do we need an eight-lane superhighway through West Asheville? The North Carolina Department of Transportation says yes, proposing that very thing as part of ongoing construction of the I-26 Connector.

But a group of concerned citizens calling themselves the I-26 Connector Awareness Group — while recognizing the need for improvements, including building a new bridge to reduce hazardous congestion on the Smokey Park Bridge — says eight lanes are too many. They’ve collected close to 2,000 signatures on a Petition to Minimize I-26 Connector Destruction.

Walter Kulash — a senior traffic engineer with the Orlando, Fla.-based community-planning firm of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart Inc. — agrees. Kulash, a proponent of “livable traffic” design (which balances traffic performance against environmental and community concerns) will be in Asheville on Thursday, Nov. 18 to meet with city and county planners and elected officials. That evening, he’ll present a public lecture at 7 p.m. at the Asheville High School Drama Theater.

The I-26 Connector has a long and gnarly history. In 1985, the Tennessee Department of Transportation committed to building a stretch of interstate highway that would run south from I-81, starting just north of Johnson City, to the North Carolina line. Three years later, the N.C. DOT agreed to build its portion of the connector; construction is now under way on the stretch from Sam’s Gap (at the North Carolina/Tennessee state line) to Mars Hill. The controversial project entails the destruction of generations-old family farms, long-standing businesses, and even the relocation of cemeteries. This phase of the project is scheduled for completion in 2002.

Phase two of the project would run from U.S. Highway 19-23, just south of the UNCA exit, to the I-40 intersection just south of Asheville. Current plans call for building a bridge across the French Broad River (at an as-yet-undecided point in West Asheville) and widening I-240 through West Asheville to eight lanes (12 lanes in some spots, with entrance and exit ramps), at a cost projected to approach $200 million. Those plans also call for demolishing the Westgate Shopping Center, plus more than 100 residences and nearly 60 other businesses along the route.

DOT’s plans are based on its traffic projections, which change periodically. One 25-year projection has some 140,000 vehicles crossing the Smokey Park Bridge every day, while another estimate holds that 90,000 vehicles will pass across the stretch of I-240 from Haywood Road to the bridge daily by the year 2020. DOT Statewide Thoroughfare Engineer Blake Norwood has called that number almost double what a typical four-lane highway is designed for.

An independent study by Kulash projects a maximum of 80,000 vehicles per day on that stretch of road by the year 2020 and maintains that a four- to six-lane highway — with a new bridge to alleviate the Smokey Park Bridge congestion — would be more than adequate for that number of vehicles.

And the I-26 Connector Awareness Group maintains that widening highways can actually create more traffic — and, thus, more congestion. This phenomenon — sometimes called “induced traffic” — can be seen in the case of the infamous Beltway in Washington, D.C., say group members, citing various formal studies. Connector opponents also note that, since most of the traffic congestion occurs at interchanges, adding more lanes won’t help (the group also favors methods such as park-and-ride services to alleviate gridlock).

But Norwood has emphasized in the past that — even if eight lanes through West Asheville are not immediately crucial — given the area’s current growth rate, the superhighway will become an inevitable necessity, further into the millennium. Building it now, he has pointed out, would be far less expensive and intrusive to businesses and neighborhoods than waiting several decades.

In his Nov. 18 lecture, Kulash will present alternatives to the DOT plan which, he believes, could be built in less time, would cost less, and would have minimal impact on neighborhoods and businesses.

The Connector Awareness Group notes that, since the DOT has not finalized its plans for the new highway, there is still time for citizen input. The Metropolitan Planning Organization (which helps determine DOT construction priorities) will hold a “Priority Needs List” public hearing on Thursday, Dec. 9 which will, address some aspects of the situation. Sometime next spring, the DOT plans to a hold a public hearing more specific to the project. In the meantime, citizens can voice their concerns to the newly revamped Asheville City Council and write letters to the DOT — specifically, to Secretary of Transportation David McCoy.

Kulash’s presentation is co-sponsored by Quality Forward, Smart Growth Partners, the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, the Asheville Preservation Society, the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County, and the WNC Alliance.

To learn more about the I-26 Connector Awareness Group, call 281-4800, ext. 75.

— Marsha Barber

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