By Leslee Kulba-As the weather outside alternated between blizzard and sunspree, Asheville City Council expedited consideration of the joint city/county resolution for getting the I-26 Connector show on the road. Last week, the Buncombe County Commissioners unanimously approved the resolution declaring local leadership’s selection of Alternative 3c for Section B. Cecil Bothwell made city council’s vote one short of unanimous.
To jog memories, presenter Rick Tipton, who serves as NC DOT’s construction engineer for the project, presented a map showing the proposed route in the area of the Captain Jeff Bowen Bridge. Tipton said Alternative 3c would only require the demolition of 19 residences; whereas Alternative 4b, with organized popular support, would require the taking of 31. Alternative 3c is estimated to cost $230 million; Alternative 4b, $332 million.
Back in 1992, the DOT wanted to improve the road with funding for Interstate loops. Progress on the project has since been derailed at every turn by environmental interest groups. Recently, however, the DOT changed its system of triage for funding projects. It scores projects with a point system gauging cost-benefit ratios, congestion remediation, economic impact, safety, and convenience for freight and military traffic. The project may now be seen in the second position of “High Profile Projects & Studies” on the DOT’s web site.
Councilman Jan Davis thanked all who had gone to great lengths to arrive at an agreement. He recalled how ten years ago, council was only allowed to select the color of the oak leaves to go on a sound barrier. This time, the DOT was listening with intent to concerns ranging from wishes to preserve neighborhoods to consideration of hanging a cantilever deck off the side of the Bowen Bridge for bicycles.
Members of council described the selection of the plan as a lowball bid. Davis said the city has set aside funds to begin taking care of multimodal concerns in the event the DOT won’t. Other members of council wanted the public to understand that the resolution was only to keep the project in the running for consideration. Once the low bid was approved, everything could be up for negotiation, they said.
About a dozen members of the public took a stand at the microphone. Most wore suits. The arguments presented nothing new. Businessmen wanted the road completed ASAP to relieve congestion and improve circulation. Tom Muncy spoke of the economic benefits of facilitating the flow of port traffic through town as well as helping locals get from place to place without unnecessary aggravation. The thought of 119,000 cars traveling the Capt. Bowen Bridge every day indicated council could not approve the resolution fast enough.
Opponents pushed for Alternative 4b. Rich Lee, repeated the platform of the group calling itself the I-26 ConnectUs Project. He reiterated the plan does not conform to the city’s strategic plans, the resolution should be used only as a fakeout to make sure the city gets funding for the project it really wants, the final design should accommodate multimodal transportation, damaged communities should be more than compensated, the Capt. Bowen Bridge and Patton Avenue should eventually become a boulevard for local traffic, and the project should be studied and studied again until its footprint can be substantially reduced. Representing the Asheville Design Center, Alan McGuinn repeated that organization’s stance that design precedes funding.
Bothwell picked up on that last point. He compared the 3c and 4b proposals to a $230 computer that can’t do what he needs it to do and a $330 computer. One either pays the extra to get what they need, or they get their $100 saved with a piece of junk. Bothwell referenced Muncy’s remarks about expediting commercial traffic, and declared, “This is the Koch brothers’ plan!” He said Alternative 3c “is not right for Asheville, and in twenty years, I’ll be seen to have been right.”
Councilman Gordon Smith brought up the sad fact that urban renewal in Asheville has a tendency to mow down minority neighborhoods. He read a couple quotes he had retrieved from the archives of UNC-Asheville’s History Department. The Burton Street community, an area once avoided for its open-air drug market and rampant crime, is now in remission thanks to intensive efforts by good-hearted neighbors and talent in the Asheville Police Department, under the aegis of the Federal Weed & Seed program. The community has also been in the crosshairs of the DOT for twenty-two years. Smith described the threat of the highway as a guillotine over the necks of the neighbors.
At that, Tipton explained the process the DOT follows when relocating residents. It performs an appraisal more thorough than normal and then offers the family a fair-market-value comparable nearby. In the absence of a comparable, the DOT would try to get the family into something nicer and eat the cost of the upgrade. Tipton said close to 99 percent of residents are amenable to this form of settlement.
Tipton shared next steps for the project. On or around May 5, the DOT will host an open house at the Renaissance Hotel, showing maps large enough to identify all parcels that will be affected. People will be able to drop in and ask questions. A draft environmental impact statement will be due around February of 2015, and a final public hearing will be held a few months thereafter. The results of the final environmental impact study will be available for a final decision in the summer of 2016, following which the DOT will begin acquiring rights of way.