A route has finally been chosen, but numerous details about the long-delayed I-26 Connector through Asheville — including the scope of the project and how the new roadway will affect nearby residents — remain unclear.
After decades of debate, the N.C. Department of Transportation has settled on a route for the Interstate 26 project through Asheville. The plan, known as 4B, will have the smallest impact on the city’s Emma and Burton Street neighborhoods, although there will be a slightly larger impact on Montford in terms of noise and views than Plan 4. Plan 4B also reconnects the Hillcrest neighborhood to the highway.
“I started working on this project in the late 1980s,” said Mike Plemmons, executive director of the Council of Independent Business Owners. “We have had plans before, so I’m not even sure this will be it, but we need to get this done.”
Through the 30 years that Plemmons has been advocating for a solution to what many call “dysfunction junction” — the section of highway that connects I-26, I-40, I-240 and downtown Asheville — he has seen the area become more congested and more dangerous.
“The accidents and the gridlock are significant for anyone who drives here,” he said. “The death toll has been going up.”
The reason for the danger on the current road is that Patton Avenue and I-240/I-26 all dump onto the Jeff Bowen Bridge. Cars going west on I-26 must cross several lanes of heavy traffic in a short distance, coming onto the bridge in the right lane and having to negotiate over to the far left lane in a quarter-mile, while others are trying to move to the right to get to downtown.
The project will take all interstate highway traffic off the Jeff Bowen Bridge, making Patton Avenue strictly a local road.
Julie Mayfield, co-director of MountainTrue and a member of Asheville City Council, has been working on the solution, too. She expressed concerns about the finer details that could affect quality of life for people who live near the highway.
MountainTrue is a nonprofit that has been coordinating the effort to minimize the impact of the I-26 Connector on the city’s neighborhoods.
“The route has been chosen, but there are still important decisions to be made,” Mayfield said. For example, the size of the road could be as wide as 10 lanes, which Mayfield believes is overkill.
Until recently, the size of a road was determined by a measure of traffic congestion called “level of service.” Roads are graded A (all clear, all the time) to F (traffic commonly slows to a standstill). The federal government required roads to be built for a level of service better than D, and the 4B solution would leave I-240 with a D level of congestion for 15 minutes twice a day during rush hour.
“One of the things we’ve always argued is that this is an urban highway and it runs through established neighborhoods,” Mayfield said.
And while the federal government has dropped its level-of-service requirement, the state DOT has yet to agree, Mayfield said.
“The state is under no obligation to listen to our concerns,” Mayfield said. “The system is not set up to allow us to have direct input, but the choice of Plan B sends the right signal.”
Not everyone is happy, however, about more road-building to accommodate ever more visitors and drive a tourist economy that creates low-paying jobs, leaving employees unable to afford to live here.
“I am sick about that option being the best option,” said Byron Ballard, a resident of the Clingman Street area who worries about the rate of development in Asheville. “People want to see us become the next Atlanta or Charlotte, but there are some of us who want to preserve the sense of place here. Asheville is unique, and this is just another nail in the coffin of Asheville as a charming mountain town.”
Ballard was a leader of the effort several years ago to have the Clingman Street area declared a historic neighborhood, but the effort failed.
“We were seen as a staging area for construction at the time,” Ballard said. “Developers wanted to demolish buildings here so they could have a staging area.”
Part of the problem that people don’t seem to recognize, Ballard said, is that improvements to public transportation never really became part of the solution to traffic congestion.
“If it were actually about moving people instead of moving cars, we would be looking at public transportation as a solution. Instead, we’re looking at how to have the least impact on developable land.”
Ballard believes a series of park-and-ride lots with shuttle service into downtown could improve congestion, especially for tourists, but also for people who work downtown.
Mayfield believes the size of the connector project as it is proposed is too large.
“The route of the road was a big decision, but the big question now is how big it will be,” she said. “That impacts everything.”
Mayfield believes people should remain concerned about the project and stay involved in the process in the months to come as the state debates the size of the road. The state will offer a period of public comment, as it did for determining the route, and people need to be informed and involved.
“A smaller road means less impact on neighborhoods, better views, less pollution and less noise,” Mayfield said.
But Plemmons is eager to get the project moving.
“People will lose land,” he said. “This happens when you own property near a highway or a school — it may happen. But congestion is getting worse every year, and that affects everyone. It used to be we who live here learned routes to avoid the highways, but those are backing up, too. It’s time to move ahead.”
Mayfield and Plemmons both predict the rest of the planning process will take several years. A final environmental impact statement is due next year, after another public hearing. Land acquisition is projected to begin in 2019, Mayfield said. Construction probably won’t begin until 2020 or 2021, and the project likely will take two or more years to complete.
“These things move slowly,” she said.