Ken Putnam, director of the city of Asheville’s transportation department, has recently given city officials updates about the status of the planned Interstate 26 Connector project through town. It’s a massive public works project, the biggest Asheville has seen in decades, that will cost taxpayers at least three-quarters of a billion dollars. Here’s a look at where things stand:

First, understand the scope of the project:  The I-26 Connector includes building a new bridge over the French Broad River, widening the interstate through West Asheville and remaking what’s not-so-fondly known as “Malfunction Junction” in Asheville, otherwise known as the confluence of Interstates 40, 240 and 26.

Work on two sections of the project – the new bridge and the remodeled interchange – is scheduled to begin next year, but there’s currently no N.C. Department of Transportation funding for that middle portion of the project. Putnam says right-of-way acquisition will start in 2019.

Design-build is the hot DOT buzzword. It’s the process that will be used for the I-26 Connector project, Putnam says, a system in which the project owner is responsible for delivery of both the design and construction of a project at a set price.

The DOT’s Environmental Impact Statement is a significant milestone for a construction project, and that document should be open for public review by late summer or early fall, Putnam says. There will be a public meeting set to review it later this year.

The Record of Decision, the point at which the federal government signs off on the project, should happen late this year or in early 2019, Putnam says. Then, it’s on.

Sam Schwartz is a name to know. In transportation circles, he’s known as “Gridlock Sam” for apparently coining the term “gridlock.” In Asheville, he’s the consultant hired to act as the key liaison between the city and state DOT officials.

Putnam says a point of emphasis with the project is to create “surplus property” that the city could eventually take over and develop, especially as Patton Avenue is reclaimed as a true city street. Right now, speeding interstate traffic traveling through Asheville must interact with city traffic as all the cars move over the Bowen Bridge. Another major point of emphasis of the design of the new roadway is to separate “local” traffic from interstate traffic.

On that point of turning Patton Avenue back into an urban corridor, Asheville architect Michael McDonough spoke forcefully about that issue. His comments came as an outgoing member of the Asheville Downtown Commission. Putnam delivered his detailed status update to that group before he delivered a stripped-down version of the update to Asheville City Council.

McDonough told Putnam and the commission that DOT transportation planners are not urban planners. “They don’t know hot to fit an interstate around an urban corridor,” he said. So thinks like ramp connections are “based on interstate needs, rather than urban planning principles.” The key is to reverse that, McDonough said. “We need to create taxable, urban properties that are developable.” McDonough said he’s happy to hear that Schwartz is engaged, because “I don’t think anybody at the city knows how to have these conversations.”

Important points for this road planning, according to McDonough: make several connections down to the river so that the city isn’t relying on Clingman Avenue as the main connector; and connect other neighborhoods such as Montford. “Highways traditionally disconnect neighborhoods, and we want to reconnect neighborhoods. We need to make sure that we are thinking as urban designers and not reacting to highway designers,” he said.

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