Asheville officials are scrambling to finalize a resolution on a preferred route for the long-controversial Interstate 26 Connector project to meet a March 31 N.C. DOT deadline.
An I-26 working group, which consists of members of Asheville City Council, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and others, is trying to finalize a resolution that both bodies can agree on, and one that backs a specific route for the project. Controversy has raged for years over the design, location and impact of the project. The last major push to move the project forward saw City Council endorse one route and county commissioners another.
The rush for a resolution is tied to an overhaul approved last year of the way N.C. DOT prioritizes road-building projects. Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a bill that lawmakers said would make DOT more efficient and offer planners at the regional, district and statewide levels more flexibility.
Each of DOT’s 14 divisions across the state have been working on their lists to submit to the statewide pool for prioritization, and in January, DOT officials delivered an update to the working group.
The controversial project, which would be one of the biggest road-building projects in Western North Carolina history, involves widening Interstate 240 in West Asheville, building a new highway bridge crossing the French Broad River and changing the configuration of the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange, an area that often clogs with interweaving traffic. Local officials for years have argued over how wide the roadway, as well as an exact route. Over the years, proposed alternatives would cut through swaths of established neighborhoods.
In 2009, state officials stalled the connector project, which was on the boards for construction in 2013. Then in 2011, the state announced that the I-26 connector would be on hold for at least 10 years. The project was one of the lowest-rated road construction projects in North Carolina, officials said, with construction slated to begin around 2020.
Julie Mayfield, co-director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, a grassroots nonprofit environmental organization based in Asheville, said on Wednesday that DOT officials told the working group the connector project would have a better chance at a high statewide ranking if local officials got behind a specific proposed alternative. DOT officials had a list of four proposed routes, which they presented to the public some five years ago. Those plans have since been updated, and Mayfield, a member of the working group, said the group asked to see updated drawings. The working group also includes former Mayor Lou Bissette and county Commissioners Holly Jones, Brownie Newman and Joe Belcher, as well as City Council members Marc Hunt and Jan Davis.
DOT officials obliged about two weeks ago, Mayfield said. The cheapest proposed route came in at about $230 million, Mayfield said, and had been reworked to have the least impact on existing neighborhoods. Since then, the working group has been crafting a resolution that Asheville City Council and Buncombe County commissioners can approve at their respective March meetings.
Mayfield said members of the working group have been “frustrated by the aggressive timeframe and the fact that DOT is forcing this preliminary endorsement before we have all the information,” noting that an environmental impact on the DOT’s proposed routes for the connector won’t be finished until March 2015.
“But the resolution will be clear that approval is for the purposes of prioritization only,” Mayfield said. Another decision point will likely come later with a second resolution expressing concern about the size of the road, the need for bike- and pedestrian-friendly features, she said.
Rick Tipton, the Asheville-based DOT division construction engineer for Division 13, said Wednesday that the refined route “eliminates impacts on the Emma community” in west Asheville and sends a new bridge across the French Broad further to the south than original plans. The cost of a project is a factor in the prioritization process, he said. Tipton said local agreement on a specific route is one of the many factors considered, but DOT officials have not asked for that.
DOT officials are working on scheduling a public forum in late April or early May that would present all alternatives, Tipton said.