The Interstate 26 Connector project will not only make I-26 wider for vehicles, but it will also make the corridor more attractive for anyone passing through. That beauty will come at a cost to Asheville taxpayers: about $5.9 million in new spending, as approved unanimously by Asheville City Council on Feb. 14.
The “aesthetic treatments” approved as part of the package include improved lighting, safety railing, pedestrian and bike surfaces and monument pillars. Asheville has already budgeted about $1.4 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure along the I-26 Connector route, bringing the city’s total allocation for the project to $7.3 million.
The N.C. Department of Transportation would be responsible for the remainder of the work’s cost, as well as covering any unexpected budget increases. The selection of a contractor to complete the project will begin early this year, with a decision expected by mid-October.
The spending approved by Council matches the full amount recommended by the city’s I-26 Connector Aesthetics Committee in December. City staff, however, had pushed to limit the aesthetics spending to about $4 million.
The reduced scope would have omitted stamped and colored concrete sidewalks at the Haywood Bridge Interchange and bridgehead monuments and stamped concrete surfacing on the Bowen Bridge. Asheville Transportation Director Ken Putnam explained that the staff’s recommendations for cuts arose due to “numerous competitive needs” in the city’s budget and limited funding sources.
“We realize that the price tag for all of the improvements recommended by this committee is not insignificant,” said committee Chair Ted Figura in a presentation to Council.
“The aesthetic improvements that we are asking the city to fund will not only improve the pedestrian and bicyclist experience and their safety, help remediate previous injustices inflicted on vulnerable neighborhoods and further the city’s vision for extending the downtown westward,” Figura continued. “We believe that they are also valuable placemaking initiatives that will enrich Asheville’s character [and] not only contribute to the quality of life enjoyed by Asheville citizens — it will add to the attractiveness of our community for tourists.”
Members of Council agreed to support the higher level of spending, but they said that finding additional community partners such as Buncombe County and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority would be necessary to help pay for the work. No source of funding has yet been specified for the new I-26 commitments.
At the behest of member Kim Roney, Council also voted to support I-26 aesthetic recommendations made by neighborhoods that will be directly impacted by the project, including Burton Street, Montford and Hillcrest. Documents outlining those recommendations weren’t attached to Council’s agenda.
Council member Maggie Ullman was the sole vote against Roney’s motion, saying that she didn’t feel comfortable offering her support without first seeing specifics from the neighborhoods.
“I’ve got to be clear with everybody — I love Burton Street. I think Burton Street is fantastic,” Ullman explained. “I feel a little caught off guard not having written materials to consider. I support the neighborhood, but the lack of precision and detail makes me uncomfortable.”
Council shuts the door on check-in meetings
Council also voted unanimously on a resolution replacing its current system of private “check-in” meetings with public, in-person briefing work sessions. The new meetings would take place at 11 a.m. on the first and third Thursdays of each month in City Hall’s first-floor North Conference Room.
According to a Feb. 15 city press release, the first of the new meetings will be held Thursday, Feb. 23. No public comment will be accepted. An agenda for each meeting will be posted online no later than noon the day before.
“This is another opportunity to capture the story and tell the story of the hard work that we’re doing, the challenging issues and the successes that we’ll share together when we do the people’s work in public,” said Roney. “So, thank you for the effort to schedule these meetings in public. And follow us on the journey as we try this new effort.”