Committee keeps I-26 connector project rolling

The Transportation Advisory Committee voted unanimously to keep the I-26 connector project on schedule, but also asked the N.C. Department of Transportation to accept public comments while designing the highway.

More than 50 people gathered at the TAC hearing, which is held every other year to help DOT prioritize its statewide road-improvement plans. Many in attendance voiced their opposition to the DOT’s current plan for the I-26 connector, an eight-lane freeway that’s expected to slice through the Westgate Shopping Plaza and portions of West Asheville.

The TAC — made up of local officials, including Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick and City Council member Chuck Cloninger — functions as a liaison group between the county’s urban areas and the DOT. This year, the group came up with a lengthy wish list to send to Raleigh, including a number of items aimed at improving so-called “gateways” to the heart of Asheville.

Recognizing that the audience was fit to pounce with criticisms of the proposed I-26 connector, Asheville Transportation Planner Ron Fuller offered some calming words and pointed out that the TAC was only considering whether to keep the connector on schedule, not whether to endorse any specific design.

“The DOT has a preferred alternate, but so far, they haven’t unveiled it,” said Fuller. “You [TAC members] are asking only to not let the project get behind. When they come out with the new plan, at some point, this body is going to be asked to make a decision on it.”

Sitnick was applauded by the audience when she announced that City Council will probably establish, in the near future, a formal means for residents to voice their concerns about (or praise for) the DOT’s plans. The audience also applauded what she described as a new relationship between the DOT in Raleigh and the communities it serves around the state.

“The paradigm is, now, for the community to give input to Raleigh,” she said, implying that this is something the DOT hasn’t always welcomed. “And I think our greater community has recognized that, with gusto.”

Fuller warned the TAC, however, that a vote to slow down the I-26 connector could seriously jeopardize the already-behind-schedule project, which has been in the works for 10 years. And he pointed out, in a lengthy but informative lecture, that the public — including a committee representing 27 Asheville organizations and groups — had been involved, from the earliest stages, in the connector’s design plans. The rub, he noted, is that the committee had voted for a six-lane highway — not eight, as the DOT more recently recommended, based on new, higher projections for future traffic.

Speakers representing several organizations from the Asheville business community spoke out in favor of keeping the project on schedule.

“Now is the time for the project to be built,” declared Mac Swicegood, speaking on behalf of the Council of Independent Business Owners. And Dave Porter, vice president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, urged the TAC to request that the I-26 connector project “move ahead as soon as possible.”

Asheville resident Philan Medford appeared to carry the flag for many in the opposition, citing citizens’ need to have more say in the design plans. “We need more than the DOT asking, ‘Dear, what kind of sound barrier would you like between the highway and your house?”

After more than 20 speakers, the TAC opted to add some new wording to its priority-needs list, stating that its vote to keep the connector on schedule “should not be construed to deny any additional public-involvement processes that may be requested [in order] to ensure this project be completed with community concerns taken into consideration.”

The I-26 connector, of course, was not the only item on the TAC’s needs list. The group also requested that the DOT give priority to improving the county’s “gateway corridors” — such as Sweeten Creek Road, Long Shoals Road, Brevard Road, Weaverville Highway out to Woodfin, and Merrimon Avenue — by eliminating curvy sections, widening lanes, and using landscaping to make the roads more aesthetically pleasing.

Widening the lanes, said Fuller, would be an important step toward improving safety for the many bicyclists and pedestrians who use these roads.

Also on the list: an additional bridge across the Swannanoa River, to alleviate traffic in the Biltmore Village area; widening a short section of Mills Gap Road; and widening Fanning Bridge Road in Fletcher.

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