Asheville City Council

How much control do Asheville City Council members want over the three public channels they squeezed out of the new franchise agreement with InterMedia?

That depends on which channel you’re talking about (there’s one for public access, one for educational use, and one exclusively for governmental programming). The city will administer the government channel — which will air City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings, as well as public-information notices. A commission made up of people involved in education will oversee the school channel. And a nonprofit organization will probably adminster the public-access channel, with another small commission overseeing its work and reporting to Council members.

Those were the choices Council informally settled on during its Nov. 4 work session, after city staff presented a variety of options.

Council member Barbara Field asked that the educational commission — which staff recommended should consist of people nominated by schools and educational organizations — including representatives from the home-schooling and alternative-education communities. “If we’re really going to do educational programming, we should broaden it to [represent] more than just traditional [education],” said Field.

Someone from the general public, perhaps with video-production expertise, should also be included, other Council members suggested.

As for the public-access channel, Council members indicated that they would like to have some degree of control, but don’t really want to run it. One option city staff presented was to let InterMedia administer the channel, but no Council member said a word in support of that. They seemed to lean toward seeking an existing nonprofit organization to run the show.

“We need that level of separation,” noted Field. “I don’t want to be the one called because little Johnny’s mom wasn’t happy with what he watched at 2 a.m. on the public-access channel. I’m sure I’d get calls anyway, but I would like that degree of separation.”

Most Council members said they liked the nonprofit option, too, which would entail creating a small commission to oversee the nonprofit. Members stressed that Council should retain control over the contract with whichever organization is selected, rather than handing over that authority to the commission.

Before Council selects a nonprofit organization and creates the new commission, city staff will schedule a public hearing on the issue, as well as on the education-channel commission.

The I-26 cut

Is the existing (western) half of Interstate 240 the best route for I-26 through Asheville? And should it be widened to eight lanes?

Five years ago, a diverse committee of Asheville-area citizens believed the route through town was best — but they didn’t know the North Carolina Department of Transportation would recommend eight lanes, former committee Chair Norma Price told Council members on Nov. 4.

Council members had invited Price and other members of the now-defunct citizens’ committee to recount the process they went through in advising DOT on the proposal. Price was joined by a handful of former committee members, who had represented such groups as RiverLink, the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, the Housing Authority, real-estate and home-builder associations, other business organizations, the Chamber of Commerce and the Western North Carolina Alliance.

Price held up a copy of DOT’s 1995 Phase I Environmental Analysis: Asheville Urban Area report — a one-inch-thick tome that Council members tried to flip through as Price highlighted the steps the committee followed in 1993. The information that was ultimately compiled in that report “was what we had to go on,” said Price.

It includes a description of Route K — a long bypass through west Buncombe County — that would cost millions more than going through town, disturb 80 acres of wetlands and thousands of streams, and require the relocation of more than 200 homes, Price explained. K would also encourage urban sprawl by drawing business and residential development away from the heart of town, she added.

Another option — don’t widen the road or make improvements to alleviate increased traffic on the Smokey Park Bridge — “got no support,” said Price. “Doing nothing … would result in backed-up congestion [on I-240 and the bridge] and increase air pollution.”

Instead, the committee decided that Alternate A — which would force the relocation of one-third fewer homes and businesses than K — was the best choice: Send I-26 through west Asheville on the existing I-240, and build a new bridge across the river, just north of the Smokey Park Bridge.

But that was with the understanding that DOT was recommending a six-lane road. “What we now call the double-widening of I-240 [to eight lanes] … we didn’t know that at the time,” noted Price.

DOT, however, recently changed its recommendation, citing updated traffic counts and traffic-volume projections that appear to indicate eight lanes will be needed within the next 25 years.

After Price finished summarizing the process — most of which Council members had reviewed when they invited DOT officials to a Sept. 1 meeting — other former committee members also spoke.

“I didn’t buy the numbers,” said Harry Weiss, director of The Preservation Society. Though his organization had supported construction of a new bridge, it argued against widening I-240 to six lanes, because of the disruption to adjacent neighborhoods, and it questioned the lack of a more comprehensive approach to the city’s transportation problems. “Of course, eight lanes was never mentioned, and I’m deeply skeptical of that,” added Weiss.

Former committee member John Hill stressed that the majority vote for Alternate A was made by a diverse group that put a lot of work into the decision. The routing of I-26 through town “does not have to be readdressed,” he said. As for lane widths and other design particulars, “Leave it to the DOT experts.”

Two other former members, Pat Skalski and Rusty Sivils, spoke against widening I-240, citing concerns about urban sprawl and noting their skepticism of DOT’s traffic projections for I-26.

Most Council members absorbed the information and remarks without comment. But Earl Cobb reiterated his continuing concern that I-26 will bring “a funeral procession” of truck traffic through town. “We need a bypass around Asheville for the trucks,” he said, arguing for Alternate K, as he has in previous meetings.

But DOT had projected that K would draw less than 10,000 vehicles per day — which could be handled by a small, two-lane road, Skalski pointed out.

Price observed that motorists “will take the route of least resistance.” She and other committee members figured that trucks and other vehicles would still come through town, as the most direct route, even if K were built.

Nonetheless, Cobb urged Council to hold a public hearing on the issue. “Inform the people on this: Speak now, or forever hold their peace.”

Council member Tommy Sellers suggested that Council hold a joint meeting with DOT, which plans to schedule a hearing for late spring or early summer of 1999.

Council took no formal action on the issue.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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