On average, some 56,000 vehicles traverse the Interstate 26 corridor between downtown Asheville and the Madison County line every day. The heavily used route serves residents of the immediate area, surrounding counties and eastern Tennessee, as well as long-distance travelers.
On the 16-mile stretch between the Forks of Ivy (Exit 13) and the Interstate 240/Patton Avenue interchange, however, the word “future” is affixed to the standard red, white and blue interstate signs.
Eventually, those qualifying signs will be taken down, once a massive construction project by the N.C. Department of Transportation, the design consulting firm AECOM, and a slew of federal and state agencies brings this stretch of highway up to interstate standards.
How does an ordinary highway become an interstate? The answer lies in “A Policy on Design Standards: Interstate System,” a publication of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that outlines the requirements a road must meet. There are benchmarks for highway access, grading, the number and width of lanes, and the structural integrity of bridges and on-ramps.
Furthermore, these standards vary depending on the surrounding area’s population density and zoning. In the case of the Future I-26, traffic engineers must work with both sets of standards, because the study area spans urban and rural land uses.
NCDOT traffic engineer Zahid Baloch outlines three main categories of work that must be done before the word “future” can be unbolted from those roadway signs: “adding lanes, reconfiguring interchanges and rehabilitating or replacing several bridges.”
One of the most pressing issues, especially at the southern end near downtown Asheville, is expanding the road’s capacity: Based on traffic volumes, says Baloch, lanes may be added and/or widened. Shoulders will be widened to the standard 12 feet, and the median will be expanded to anywhere from 26 to 46 feet, depending on the existing features and available funding.
Many aspects of the road, including things like the speed of exit curves, weren’t built with interstate standards in mind, notes Don Kostelec of Kostelec Planning, an Asheville-based design firm that’s worked on several interstate projects across the country. “Highway 19-23 was originally built as a freeway,” he says, adding that all those factors are standing in the way of official interstate designation.
Expansion aside, the roadway will also need to be beefed up to “provide a sufficient pavement structure to accommodate future traffic volumes and loads,” says Baloch. “This may include replacing some of the existing pavement structure.” These details, he notes, will be worked out as the design plans are finalized over the next few years.
The Future I-26 construction plan also requires the DOT and its partners to evaluate the 29 bridges and overpasses associated with this stretch of road.
“Bridges that are nearing the end of their useful life span will be replaced,” Baloch explains. “Others will be updated and widened to match the proposed improvements.”
Kostelec, though, cautions against reading too much into the terms used by traffic engineers. “‘Functionally obsolete,’” he notes, “is one of those loaded terms.” But in many cases, it refers to things like railing heights, new crash load standards and other changes in federal requirements. “If you built a bridge last year that was up to code, and then the federal government revised their standards this year, then technically your new bridge is obsolete.”
From paper to pavement
Identifying the challenges facing the Future I-26 project (officially dubbed “A-0010A” by the DOT) is fairly straightforward; implementing the needed improvements is more complicated. “Typically, large projects such as this one are broken down into smaller subsections for funding and/or construction purposes,” Baloch explains. “This gives the state the ability to spread out funding over multiple years and allows for sections with the greatest need or priority to be constructed first.”
For this project, engineers have broken up the highway into three subsections: A-0010AA extends from the project terminus in downtown Asheville north to Exit 19, which services Weaverville, Marshall and connects to U.S. 25-70. Section A-0010AB runs from Exit 19 to Flat Creek (Exit 17) and the Old Mars Hill Highway. The final segment, A-0010AC, runs north from Exit 17 and ends just short of Forks of Ivy and Stockton Road (Exit 13).
Timelines for completing each section are still murky. Currently, only section A-0010AA has sufficient funding in the State Transportation Improvement Program. Baloch says right of way acquisition is expected to begin in fiscal year 2020, with construction commencing by 2022. He notes, though, that all the project’s schedules are preliminary and subject to significant change at any time.
Kostelec, meanwhile, says, “In my 13 years working in this industry, I’ve never seen a federally funded project completed on the original timeline.”
One reason, he continues, is that “federal authorities ask more questions when their funds are involved.” Like a parent who must choose between giving money to their own child or a stranger, notes Kostelec, “You’re always going to ask more questions of the stranger, and that’s largely how the federal government sees any construction project with other agencies involved.”
In the meantime, any current construction work that’s visible along the roadway, notes Baloch, is part of “operational maintenance.” As for the major improvements, “The focus right now is on determining how best to improve the existing roadway and bridges while taking into consideration any effects the proposed project could have on our environment.”
The DOT, he continues, also “recognizes the need for regional coordination to maintain functionality during all phases of roadway improvement in the Asheville area.”
Further complicating project A-0010A’s timeline is the dizzying array of agencies that have to sign off on the project before construction can begin. The list includes such diverse local, state and federal entities as the Federal Highway Administration; the Army Corps of Engineers; the Environmental Protection Agency; state and federal fish, water and wildlife services; the state Historic Preservation Office; the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization; the Tennessee Valley Authority; and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
All partner agencies must be included in the planning and study process to ensure that the DOT receives the permits needed for construction to begin. This means project managers must submit a series of plans and proposals to each agency, which then suggests tweaks and points out areas of concern. The proposals and studies are then revised until everyone is in agreement.
The DOT, says Baloch, “has formed an outreach plan that spans all phases of project development” to help the agency gather input from the various partners and stakeholders.
A Merger Process Team including representatives of all the partner agencies oversees the project development and permitting processes, seeking to streamline the massive undertaking while helping team members ensure that the work satisfies their agencies’ respective missions.
But the DOT must also keep tabs on any projects the city or county may have that might affect daily traffic flow. To make sure that everyone is on the same page, says Baloch, “We strive to keep an open dialogue with local governments surrounding the corridor.”
Meanwhile, the project’s traffic engineers must also keep the public informed about the plans and progress. The agency, he says, takes a multipronged approach, including frequent updates on the project and any impacts on traffic during construction. Baloch encourages residents to check the project’s website often to keep abreast of the latest developments. The agency also plans to hold regular community meetings to give residents a chance to ask questions and voice concerns.
As of this writing, however, the DOT and its partner agencies are still in the initial planning stages, Baloch and other officials say. Over the next several years, the Merger Process Team will “discuss bridging decisions, selection of the design option(s), and minimization of project impacts.”
The latest estimates peg the total cost of upgrading Future I-26 at about $184 million. But considering the multiple challenges the project faces and the uncertain timeline, don’t look for those optimistic “future” signs to be taken down anytime soon.