The North Carolina Department of Transportation is seeking public comment on its proposed Interstate 26 connector. Photo by Angie Newsome.

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The N.C. Department of Transportation will have its hands full sorting out wide-ranging and sometimes contradictory feedback on the planned Interstate 26 Connector project through Asheville, following a public hearing Monday.

Many speakers called for “simpler” plans, but didn’t always seem to have the same thing in mind. Some just wanted to project to begin more quickly. Others expressed disdain for so many lanes, ramps or bridges. Some called for reduced dependence on cars, noting that building additional capacity for cars tends to promote sprawl and lead to further congestion over time.

DOT has said it will consider comments from the session as well as written comments it receives, with neither being given greater weight, as it decides on final design plans for the project. Those wishing to comment online can visit DOT’s website comment form at https://mysidewalk.com/organizations/290199/comment-form.

The agency predicts that without any of the proposed changes, by 2033 more than half of the freeway elements in the Asheville area would operate at “an unacceptable level of service.” The project would attempt to relieve congestion, improve safety and enhance navigation through and around Asheville for local, regional and long-distance traffic.

Among the concerns prompting the project, DOT noted the high level of crashes. “Multiple segments of I-240 west of Asheville currently have an accident rate that exceeds the critical crash rate for similar North Carolina facilities, demonstrating the need for these improvements along this section of the facility,” the agency noted.

But various attendees Monday challenged some of these presuppositions, the data DOT had used to reach its conclusions, the standards the highway agency uses in making its conclusions and the adequacy of the proposals in resolving these concerns.

Information session

Public interest appeared intense as substantial crowds swamped the parking lot at Asheville Renaissance Hotel, where DOT conducted the hearing and an advance information session.

Even though DOT billed the information session being as ending at 6:30 p.m., crowds lingered beside detailed maps posted on walls and rolled out on tables well past the appointed hour; the 7 p.m. hearing was unable to begin on time. DOT staffers also seem surprised when they ran out of handouts summarizing the project as hundreds of attendees pored over the documents.

DOT’s large-scale maps explored the various alternative proposals under consideration and impacts on a wide range of issues, such as noise and greenways. Attendees scrutinized these and other documents, trying to understand how the project might affect their workplaces, neighborhoods, commute routes and opportunities for shopping and recreation.

During the information session, DOT staff attempted to answer many of these questions about specific details from individuals.

One person wondered aloud if he would still be able to reach Sam’s Club via Westgate Parkway. Others chatted about how close new bridges would come to North Asheville’s historic Montford neighborhood. A few attendees discussed whether the price tags with each of the plans as acceptable.

Many tried to understand the materials they were seeing from DOT in light of advance publicity from various interest groups that have embraced or opposed aspects of the proposals.

Most of the materials from the session, as well as additional ones, are available online at http://www.ncdot.gov/projects/i26connector/.

The Project

The overall plans would be divided into three main sections to be completed in sequence:

  • Section C, to be built starting in 2021, would upgrade connections between I-26/I-240 with I-40 in southwestern Asheville, with additional changes to the I-40 interchange with Smoky Park Highway, just to the west.
  • Section B, slated for construction in 2024, would reshape the way the interstates cross the French Broad River and pass through areas adjacent to downtown Asheville. Various approaches would take some or all interstate traffic off the existing Jeff Bowen Bridge, which would continue to serve Patton Avenue traffic between West Asheville and downtown.
  • Section A, which would come later and doesn’t have a firm build date, would revamp I-26/I-240 through West Asheville.

While DOT presented four alternatives with varying pros and cons for Section C, and a similar four alternatives for Section B, the agency offered only one plan for Section A. This lack of options drew some of the strongest criticism from those attending Monday’s event.

If DOT picked the most expensive option for each section, the I-26 Connector’s projected cost would exceed $784 million. But cheaper variations on the table could bring that much lower, to just under $592 million.

Speakers generally seemed to favor the cheapest of the four options for Section C, Alternative F1, which would use more direct lines and less flyovers and loops to bring I-26 across I-240, for a $92 million savings over the most costly option for that section.

Speakers were much less in agreement about Section B.

  • Alternative 3 would separate I-26 from I-240 traffic west of the river and carry traffic from the former along the west bank, crossing at a new bridge north of the historic Montford neighborhood. Several speakers objected to the large swathe of traditionally minority neighborhoods in northeastern West Asheville that would be disrupted by this route. While the cheapest to build, this plan would involve considerable cost for buying up substantial properties. TOTAL PRICE TAG: $236.1 million.
  • Alternative 3C would have I-26 deviate from I-240 closer to the river than Alternative 3 and would carry it across the river in separate bridges for traffic flowing in each direction. The interstate would merge with existing U.S. 19 route just west of Montford. This plan would disrupt fewer properties in West Asheville. It would be more costly to build than Alternative 3, but have an overall price tag about $5.6 million cheaper due to less cost for land acquisition, making it the cheapest option overall for Section B. TOTAL PRICE TAG: $230.7 million.
    However, one DOT staffer told Carolina Public Press that aspects of Alternative 3C already may be outdated because of a new hotel that’s under construction at the Westgate Shopping Center.
  • Alternative 4 for Section B would separate traffic from both I-26 and I-240 from the Patton Street bridge, carrying the interstate traffic across the river on three separate bridges spaced well apart. This approach would reduce stress on the aging Patton Street bridge due to large truck traffic along the interstates. TOTAL PRICE TAG: $304.7 million.
  • Alternative 4B, was the brainchild of a local design team that wanted a harmonious flow of traffic that would disrupt Asheville neighborhoods as little as possible. The plan would run similarly to Alternative 4, but with traffic crossing the river at bridges placed close together just west of Montford. This plan would also feature more intricate interchange in West Asheville, to allow traffic to connect smoothly between the various routes.
    While cheaper for property acquisition than Alternative 4, Alternative 4C would involve a much higher cost for construction, making it the most expensive plan by far, exceeding Alternative 4 by some close to $27 million and the cheap Alternative 3C by more than $100 million. TOTAL PRICE TAG: $332 million.

Speaking of price, the I-26 Connector project would be 80 percent funded by the federal government, with remaining funds coming from state sources.

Public comment

Nearly 30 attendees addressed DOT’s public hearing, though most of their remarks fells within one of several broad categories.

Several speakers called for greater attention to pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as more efficient forms of motorized transportation. One speaker from Madison County wondered why DOT had not proposed additional park-and-ride locations for long-distance commuters similar to one in Mars Hill.

Much of this discussion focused on the need for additional greenways and bike lanes, as well as changes to the interstates through West Asheville in Section A that could make the area less safe for bikes.

Sunshine Pugh, a 13-year-old student at the Rainbow Community School in West Asheville, told DOT that she bikes to school each day. She expressed concerns about not being able to do this with confidence in her safety any longer once Section A is completed.

“You build highways, and people drive,” she said. “You build greenways and sidewalks and people ride bikes and walk.”

A related complaint was that both Section A and Section B include more lanes than many believe are needed, which led several to call for a “no-build” on portions of the project or for a return to the drawing board.

Many speakers repeated this objection on lane numbers, despite an advance statement from DOT public involvement officer Drew Joyner that the number of lanes shown on the various alternatives was something that DOT would finalize after selecting a route.

Asked about this by CPP after the hearing, Joyner confirmed that DOT could select from the alternatives currently on the table and still reduce the number of lanes to as few as four on each section of interstate if that was found to be appropriate.

Other speakers focused on Plan B near the river and downtown. Several embraced the locally designed variant, Alt. 4B, but others rejecting this in favor of one of the less costly projects.

A spokesperson for one of the neighborhoods that was threatened with disruption by the project nevertheless called for its completion after many years of delay, complaining of many years of being held hostage while DOT dithered. She also noted that congestion was terrible and needed to be relieved.

A key focus for several speakers was the need to go with a plan that would take traffic off the Patton Street bridge to preserve its life.

Others, including Madison County Commissioner Matthew Wechtel, urged that DOT pick a plan and get moving without further delay to ensure a steady flow of commerce and commuters to areas outside Asheville. Wechtel described the area of interchanges near the river and downtown as “malfunction junction.”

A few speakers offered ideas and observations that appeared uniquely their own:

  • A Montford brewery owner noted the irony of encouraging additional motorists in a city known for its beer production and consumption.
  • One speaker warned the project wouldn’t do enough to protect stray animals in a community that cares deeply about animal rights. The solution? Cantilever bridges that these animals could select to walk on to cross highways on instead of walking in front of traffic.
  • Another speaker pointed to emerging technologies that could cause the state of congestion to wither away, with computerized cars avoiding collisions and moving along at safe speeds. He urged a solution that would consider the changes such innovations would produce on roadways. Speaking with CPP after the hearing, DOT’s Joyner commented on the problems that test versions of these technologies have encountered.
  • A speaker pointing out the absurdity of some aspects of the road system through Asheville called for renaming I-27 to I-27, because odd-numbered roads have a north-south orientation that better fits the trajectory of the highway. The current I-26 has section in Buncombe in which the westbound lanes travel north, northeast or even east. Much of I-240 East runs along the same route as I-26 West.
  • Alan Ditmore said looking at a map at all was the wrong first step in trying to address the problem of traffic congestion. The right approach, he said, is to offer publicly funded contraception. “You will fund contraception before I will look at your map,” he predicted.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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