The N.C. Department of Transportation could delay construction on portions of the I-26 Connector project in response to an increase in road construction costs.
The I-26 Connector, an almost $1 billion overhaul of the highway system in and around Asheville, is one of 37 projects in NCDOT’s Division 13 that have been changed in a new draft State Transportation Improvement Program for 2020-29. The draft STIP identifies state transportation projects that will receive funding over a 10-year time frame.
Division 13 encompasses Buncombe, Madison, Yancey, Mitchell, McDowell, Rutherford and Burke counties.
Because there’s a limited budget for construction each fiscal year, Division 13 Project Development Engineer Steve Cannon says, NCDOT has proposed schedule changes to projects across the state to spread the cost over time. “The primary reason is just balancing the budget on these projects,” he says.
The I-26 Connector will overhaul large chunks of interstates 26 and 240 passing through and around Asheville. In the draft document, the start date for Section C, which includes changes to the highway interchange at Interstate 40 and I-26/I-240, has been moved from FY 2020 to 2025.
Section B, which encompasses changes to Patton Avenue and the construction of three new interstate bridges over the French Broad River, has been delayed from FY 2020 to 2021, which Cannon says could mean a difference of just a few months, though specific dates haven’t been set.
Construction and right of way acquisition for Section A, which will involve expansions to the stretch of I-26/I-240 between sections B and C, will begin in FY 2022.
The proposed revisions do not include substantive changes to the details of the project, Cannon says, and would not have an impact on the end date, which NCDOT anticipates will be sometime in 2027.
In the draft STIP, NCDOT has also included improvements to Riverside Drive (now dubbed Section D) within the I-26 Connector, which Cannon says will ease coordination. “We can work on having that work done at the same time, so we’re not duplicating efforts since [the projects] are directly in that same footprint,” he says.
Although Riverside Drive runs below the proposed I-26 flyover bridges, the projects originally were classified separately. Right of way acquisition and construction for the Riverside Drive project will begin in 2021.
The changes detailed in the draft STIP will not be finalized until summer and must be approved by the state Board of Transportation.
NCDOT will have a public comment period the week of Monday, Feb. 25, at the Division 13 office at 55 Orange St. in Asheville. The public can also submit comments on the NCDOT website.
Cannon says there is a good chance that the schedule changes included in the draft will become official.
“Some of those we’re still kind of reviewing and discussing,” Cannon says. “Depending on the public comment we get, that could affect some of that as well. Generally, we stay pretty close to the draft unless there are major concerns or comments.”
City still hoping for changes
The potential schedule delay, says Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield, could provide “more breathing room” as the city continues to negotiate design changes with NCDOT.
“It’s unlikely there are going to be major changes,” Mayfield says, because the overarching design of the project is essentially set. “But within that context, there are still opportunities to tweak, improve and change the design that is there. And that is going to happen all the way up until, and maybe even after, construction begins.”
According to Mayfield, moving or eliminating a planned exit ramp that would link I-240 to Patton Avenue east of the Bowen Bridge is high on the city’s wish list. The change would make room for development, she says.
The city will meet with NCDOT 9 a.m.-noon Thursday, Feb. 21, in the Asheville Municipal Building at 100 Court Plaza.
Asheville will also have some say in design details through its Aesthetics Committee. Mayfield says the group has discretion over $10 million of the $1 billion project budget for “aesthetic treatments.”
“It’s things that will make the project more place-based and more visually appealing, so you’re not just putting this stark highway through the middle of the city,” Mayfield explains.
The committee, which will meet monthly, will send its recommendations to Asheville City Council for approval.
Committee Chair Ted Figura says the committee hopes to address a “host of concerns,” including traffic noise, light pollution and connections between highway interchanges and local streets.
The committee will look at the changes to Patton Avenue near the Bowen Bridge, which will become a local street as a result of the project. The goal, Figura says, is to ensure a “positively impactful gateway experience” for people traveling to downtown Asheville.
The committee, however, will not control development on land freed up along Patton Avenue, which NCDOT still owns.
“The purview of our committee in this respect will be setting the table aesthetically for any future development that may occur,” Figura said. “What that future development might be … that’s for others to handle.”