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I-26 link? Maybe 2020 for start up, official says
Friday, 07 February 2014 16:36
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 Six lanes or eight lanes for the Interstate 26 connector through Asheville? The question has pushed back highway upgrades for the congested road system for more than two decades.

Some interests, including the North Carolina Department of Transportation, have tried to do something about an antiquated stretch of highway that now ranks as the worst in the state for number of automobile wrecks. Others have accused the NCDOT of habitually overbuilding and favoring the automobile over what they claim are more sustainable modes of transportation.

At an update session, about 40 members of the Council of Independent Business Owners were told Jan 10 that the I-26 connector project might get started sooner than previously announced.

Ricky Tipton, a construction engineer working for the NCDOT, told the CIBO gathering that work could begin on the I-26 connector as soon as 2020.

 I-26 runs between Charleston, S.C., and Kingsport, Tenn., and many of the challenging interchanges in the Asheville area are not compliant with modern standards for interstates. Other concerns are that interstate traffic is routed through the busy business district on West Asheville’s Patton Avenue/Smoky Park Highway, and over the aging Jeff Bowen Bridge.

 Not only is the wear and tear shortening the life of the bridge, excess congestion on lanes heading into the sun during rush hour have made the stretch of highway home to many traffic collisions.

Speaking before Tipton, David Brown, representing the N.C. Board of Transportation, told the audience, “In my office, I can look out at least four times a week and see the traffic backed up to the Merrimon Avenue ramp because there’s been some accident in that area.”

Addressing the need for change, CIBO member Mac Swicegood asked, “We have a bridge carrying 110,000 cars per day. If anything happens to that bridge, where do those 110,000 cars go?”

To this, Tipton replied, “All you have to do is go out there when there’s a wreck . . . and see what happens.”

Tipton, who began working with the NCDOT in 1991, says he has spent almost his entire career working on the I-26 connector project. Back in 1989, the study commenced with the ungainly name, “The Asheville Urban Area Corridor Reservation Pilot Project.” Tipton was assigned to the project in 1995.

Since that time, the DOT and numerous other organizations have hosted a number of public input sessions. By 2006, the NCDOT was presenting the public with five options for making traffic flow more efficient and safer. Unlike old interstate projects, these would not plow through established neighborhoods. The worst of them would only take out a few homes, but those homes matter to the people who live there. Beyond that, the NCDOT even had to consider how animals would get from one side of the road to the other on the northern stretches.

Out of concern for air quality, local environmental interests did not like any of the options. They continued to protest, effectively introducing delays in the project’s schedule which repeatedly caused state funds to be repurposed for more shovel-ready projects.

In 2006, Asheville City Council pushed the date further back by commissioning its own traffic study of Alternative 4B. This plan was the brainchild of public input received and integrated by planners and designers at the Asheville Design Center. Council was acting under its belief that the traffic models used by the NCDOT were flawed, and new software showed eight lanes would be overkill.

Currently, the NCDOT is considering Alternative 4B. Brown told the group, “The two alternatives we’re looking at is No. 3 in Section B, and that’s $251 million. And Alternative 4B is $322 million.”

Locally, the project is divided into three parts. Section A, running from the Brevard Road to the Haywood Road exits, would be widened at a cost of $150 million. Section B would address snarls around the Bowen Bridge. Section C includes the I-40, I-26, and I-240 interchanges in Douth Asheville, which would be streamlined at a cost of around $100 million.

“Of course,” said Brown, “this project is statewide. We will be competing for funds with Greensboro, Charlotte” and other cities. Brown explained projects are prioritized according to a point system. Two factors weighing heavily are the cost-benefit ratio and congestion.

“Congestion weighed at 30 percent . . . We definitely have that. The bridge has 110,000 cars daily on it. That’s definitely way over capacity,” said Brown. The New Belgium Brewery is expected to compound the problem. For the third year in a row, Asheville has led the state in urban automobile accidents.

Addressing the cost-benefit ratio, which was weighted at another 30 percent of the project’s assessment, Swicegood observed, “You mean if you took down the cost of those bridges, the higher it will score.”

Asked how political the scoring was, Brown replied, “It’s 100 percent data-driven. No politics involved, strictly by the numbers, on statewide numbers.”

Tipton added, “Going forward, we have statewide projects, division projects” and others. “If a project doesn’t necessarily make the statewide cut, it could make it as a regional or divisional project, which is funded by a separate pot of money. Some of the projects might be funded at a lower tier to keep it moving forward.”

State Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Farview, interjected, “On the local component, the community has the possibility to put local dollars into these projects. . . . For instance, Buncombe County has the authority to enact sales tax to raise the score. What we’re told from Raleigh is this will score pretty well, but we won’t know ‘til the scores are released.”

The NCDOT will be hosting an informal workshop for the public within a few months, CIBO members were told. At the end of 2014, NCDOT will be hosting a more formal public hearing. The Environmental Impact Study should be completed in 2016, and construction should start in 2020.




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