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Building roads and highways in Western North Carolina poses a particular set of challenges for the state’s Department of Transportation.

Mountainous terrain and rocky soil both make planning and executing projects more complicated than in the flatter parts of the state. Harsh winters can cause projects to drag on longer than contractors and business owners along their routes would prefer. In Asheville, the region’s largest city, a push for multi-modal transportation — especially incorporating biking and walking into the city’s roadways — affects the way the state plans for the future.

NCDOT currently lists several high-profile projects in Western North Carolina, each on a major highway or interchange, that will affect tourism and commerce in the region.

The Interstate 26 Connector project and the widening of Interstate 26 have both drawn an outpouring of public attention in Buncombe County. The widening of U.S. 321 in Watauga and Caldwell counties has faced delays and the bankruptcy of a contractor. A $383 million plan to relocate U.S. 74 in Graham County has drawn the opposition of a regional environmental group. Delays in the U.S. 19 East widening project in Yancey County have been so egregious that a bill that would levy a fine of $2,500 per day against Young and McQueen, the contractor on the project, is making its way through the state Senate.

Public in the driver’s seat

North Carolina uses the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) to schedule construction projects and set priorities for road building.

According to NCDOT documents, local planning organizations, appointed by local elected officials, come up with the projects they’d like the state to undertake, and then submit those projects to the NCDOT Strategic Prioritization Office of Transportation for scoring. Later, those planning organizations rank projects both by regional impact and by the needs of the specific DOT division. Those projects are all packaged into the STIP draft and released to the public for hearings before the North Carolina Board of Transportation approves them.

The STIP gives county governments a chance to, at the very least, ensure that the state knows what the transportation priorities are at the local level. The Strategic Transportation Investments law, which passed in 2013, “encourages thinking from a statewide and regional perspective while also providing flexibility to address local needs” and “establishes the Strategic Mobility Formula, a new way of allocating available revenues based on data-driven scoring and local input.” According to David Graham, transportation planner with the High Country Rural Planning Organization, which covers Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties, the new methodology has been a good fit for his region.

“It’s working well for the High Country RPO,” he said. “What’s unique about it is that it accounts for all modes of transportation, not just highway projects.”

A more formulaic method of allocating funding for transportation projects than existed previously has resulted in more equitable attention being paid to roads in Western North Carolina that might have at one time been neglected. The 2013 law leveled the playing field in the fight for road funds, according to Julie Mayfield, an Asheville council member and co-director of  Mountain True, an Asheville-based environmental advocacy organization.

“Money used to be allocated according to different regions of the state,” she told Carolina Public Press. “It’s a more fair process now. Big projects like (the I-26 Connector) come out of a pot of money dedicated to statewide projects.”

I-26 Connector

The road venture that received the most attention in recent years is the I-26 Connector project in Asheville, which the state estimates will cost between $600 million-$800 million. The 7-mile project will include upgrades to I-240, diverting interstate traffic from Patton Avenue and to new bridges further north on the French Broad River and improving the I-26 and I-40 interchanges.

The state announced, on May 18, that it had selected the “least environmentally damaging routes” for the three sections of the project. The biggest news that came out of the release was that the state had decided to move traffic off the Jeff Bowen Bridge and, in turn, make Patton Avenue a local street again.

“The goal of this community, at least back to 2000, was getting traffic off the Jeff Bowen Bridge,” Mayfield said. “It opens the opportunity for development along Patton Avenue, to make best use of land inside the city limits.”

Construction on the project is still at least five years away, according to NCDOT. The state plans to begin property acquisition in 2019 and construction 2021. NCDOT first began talking about improvements to I-26, which was built in the 1960s, nearly 30 years ago. At a NCDOT public hearing about the project in Asheville in November 2015, DOT officials cited safety concerns about the traffic on the Patton Avenue portion of the project.

The long-awaited decision has received a positive response from many in the community.

“It will eliminate the problems that we have now on the Bowen Bridge, the speed and the weaving,” Mayfield said. “It’s the most dangerous place west of Charlotte. It will eliminate all of that.”

Michael Wray the I-26 Connector Project planning engineer with NCDOT, said the project will alleviate congestion, make the road safer and will improve travel around Asheville.

“I’ve heard so many stories about the traffic on Patton Avenue, how treacherous it can be,” he said. “There are capacity deficiencies in the area that will only get worse as time goes on. Traffic delays and congestion are already high. One of the big things is to update the interstate corridor in the area so that travel that’s coming through Asheville to the north can move more freely.”

The completed connector could represent a boost to commerce and industry to Madison and Yancey counties to the north, as well as, Henderson and Polk to the south. Since I-40 traffic is also affected, improved traffic flow through Asheville could also be of importance to Haywood and McDowell counties, as well as far western counties that rely on U.S. 74 and U.S. 19 as the capillaries that connect them to the I-40 artery and the rest of North Carolina.

Other projects on the horizon

The DOT has several other projects in development in Western North Carolina.

A separate I-26 widening project, estimated to cost more than $260 million, is scheduled to start construction in 2020. The 22.2-mile project will begin in Henderson County at U.S.25 and end at the interchange with I-40 in Asheville. The road is so congested that the state has already given it a “Level of Service” grade of F.

The state has also proposed building an interchange at Liberty Road in western Buncombe County to better accommodate travelers who live in the area and to also ease access for emergency workers. The state hasn’t set a start date for the project.

The state is also developing a project to improve U.S. Highway 19/23 north of Asheville as part of the Future I-26 Improvements Project. The NCDOT website says, “The project may include adding lanes to portions of US 19/23, replacing bridges, and repaving sections of the highway.”

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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