UPDATED: Asheville officials scramble on Interstate 26 Connector resolution

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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interstate_26_connector_2014UPDATED AT 3 p.m. throughout:

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.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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  1. Blahblahblah12 August 13, 2014

    Build it right through Hillcrest! Hillcrest is a racist project to corral poor people and a failed concept of the 1960s. Relocate the residents of Hillcrest into bungalows in West Asheville. Ha ha (smirk). I want to see the hipsters get their panties in a wad, if that’s possible in a pair of jeans so tight that I could never get my personal area to fit. LMAO.

  2. nia holder May 12, 2014

    Total agreement with Vlad.The worst designed interstate arrangements ever and the most dangerous.Nothing is logical,distance to safely change lanes for merging are inadequate and alternative routes are limited due to topography.Now rather than later is the responsible way to go.

  3. Black Jesus Christ March 7, 2014

    Jeff Bowen is a local hero who deserves honor, but I always have & will just call it “The Deathbridge”. I hope the improvements come, can you start by unlocking the gate to Hillcrest from the Deathbridge sidewalk!?

  4. orulz March 6, 2014

    Since it seems you have a map of the currently favored alternative, can you please post a larger version?

  5. Rich March 6, 2014

    Who’s to say what will be needed in 20 years? Certainly not the DOT.


    Behold DOT’s total travel-miles projections for 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, vs. the actual trend in driving. There’s the good possibility that a twenty year delay has prevented an overbuilt highway from being constructed to address a non-existent traffic problem.

    1. Vlad Emrick March 6, 2014

      I’d like to view this credibly, but there is no scale, no labels, and no source given for the data. And it’s for the total U.S., right? What does that have to do with Asheville?

      I understand the point that you’re trying to make, but my head spins every time someone throws up data like this and says the problem is “non-existent.”

      1. Rich March 7, 2014

        Here’s a source, Vlad.


        Yes, it’s for the U.S. as a whole. Data used to project a need for up to 10 lanes on I-26, unfortunately, is over a decade old (i.e., before the national decline in vehicle miles traveled), so we have no similar chart for Asheville. Still, somewhat thought provoking, don’t you think?

  6. Vlad Emrick March 6, 2014

    I know this much–the current highway, from downtown across the Bowen Bridge to Patton Avenue and into West Asheville, was incredibly poorly designed to begin with.

    Don’t make the mistake of not doing anything, doing it on the cheap, or designing it so poorly again in order to appease everyone that the finished product is worse than before. It’s a dangerous road and needs to be fixed. I don’t know whether the stretch through West Asheville needs to be 4 lanes, 6 lanes, 8 lanes, or 800 lanes, but fixing the rest of the highway needs to be a priority.

    It’s been a complete lack of leadership on this project that has gotten us where we are today.

  7. jtroop March 6, 2014

    Sending this through Chicken Hill is figtin’ words!!



  8. Steve R. March 5, 2014

    You won’t be so eager to just-git-er-done when you see what DOT has in mind — massively over-engineered and overbuilt designs with long flying onramps and overpasses that will block your mountain view from downtown. We’d look like Atlanta by the time they’re through. But hey, got to keep the asphalt and concrete lobbyists happy. (BTW, Harrison Construction, which carelessly dumped fuel oil into Hominy Creek, is the gravel-supply branch of APAC, the asphalt megacorporation that would pave those 8-10 lanes once they’re blasted through West Asheville. Bad sign, IMO.)

    1. weavervilleman March 6, 2014

      That is a good thing, means less trees and ground will be disturbed. The roads and interchanges we have now are outdated and BORING. You must be one of those people who lives in Montford community and fights with the ncdot. Its time to ignore those people like you and get this project done

    2. chris March 6, 2014

      Long, flying onramps?

      I’d kill for an onramp with a merge lane that was longer than 5 feet around here. And one that allowed you to actually see oncoming traffic before merging?! HEAVEN!

  9. Darlene March 5, 2014

    “At the very least the portion affecting the French Broad River bridge/Patton Avenue” is the key statement here. There is absolutely no rational basis for an 8+ lane freeway – the size of the Washington, DC Beltway – through West Asheville. NCDOT has been intentionally stalling any kind of solution to the Smoky Park/Bowen Bridge mess in order to try to force the community to accept their poorly planned, out of scale, outdated urban freeway plan. Build the bridge. Stop fabricating travel demand model projections based on VMT growth assumptions that are decades out of date. Stop firing engineering firms because they won’t stake their professional reputations on lying as much as NCDOT wants them to. Stop trying to displace still more African American residents like it’s 1960. Stop playing tricks to convince local officials to agree to your nefarious plans. Deal with the actual problem that is the river crossing.

    1. Mike March 5, 2014

      So what’s your ‘ideal’ fix? A smaller bridge?

      1. Jack March 5, 2014

        He never stated a smaller bridge, he stated that the bridge was the main problem. An 8-lane highway would be approximantly 130 feet across. Imagine that scar through west asheville. What Darlene suggests (I think) is the separation of the one bridge to two. One dedicated to interstate traffic, one for local traffic.

        Remember, the widening of the interstate will affect working class people. With housing prices what they are and rents skyrocketing, it would be ill advised to obliterate hundreds of homes just so your morning commute goes faster. And, as for your commute, most studies have found that increasing lanes increases traffic while simultaneously resulting in high speeds by drivers. That would negate many of the safety concerns.

        1. Mike March 6, 2014

          I don’t think anyone wants to displace any homes, and I don’t want to sound insensitive to that, and the environmental concerns, safety, etc.

          But, my thought here is this: I think we all agree we have to do something, if we do something that is minimally impactful, like a smaller road, two separate bridges, whatever, and if it is insufficient in 20 years (for growth), we will have to do this all over again. I just say lets do this right the first time, and not have to worry about it for at least 50+ years. No matter what, it is going to affect some, and I’m sorry but either we do it right now, or the problem will not be fixed, and when we have to ‘do it again’ in 20 years even more will be affected.

  10. Murphy March 5, 2014

    “Mayfield said members of the working group have been “frustrated by the aggressive timeframe…”‘

    Aggressive timeframe? – this thing has been in the planning stages since 1998

    and the various neighborhood groups, alliances, Commissioners, Council-folk and assorted NIMBY contingents that have stood in the way of every route and alternate proposal that has stalled progress…

    1. orulz March 6, 2014

      Try 1989.

      One of the groups in my sixth grade civics class (in 1993) did a project about the I-26 connector alternatives analysis.

  11. Vlad Emrick March 5, 2014

    Enough is enough. Stop delaying and build this thing, at the very least the portion affecting the French Broad River bridge/Patton Avenue. It’s too dangerous to delay any longer.


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