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Commissioners angle for I-26 improvements

i-026_future RS

By Leslee Kulba-Not another I-26 discussion!

For the last twenty-five years, the City of Asheville has been torn in a conflict between business-minded people who see no value in idling in traffic fifteen or so minutes a day, and environmentalists who want to use a shortage of roads to force people to choose to cycle or walk to work. Sometimes, protracted legislative discussions read like a theme and variations. In this case, there are no variations.

Asheville could have had a new I-26 connector by now, were it not for concerned citizens arguing traffic could flow well with six lanes instead of the proposed eight. Years later, when the matter was supposedly settled, the city hired its own engineer with his own software, to show once again that the plans for the eight-lane road were purely driven by NC DOT’s agenda, an obscene fascination with pouring concrete.

The city further supported efforts by the Asheville Design Center to create a multimodal highway that provided pedestrian connectivity between West Asheville and downtown. Watercolor renderings showed a Smart Growth paradise flanking the corridor, replete with mixed-use development on handsome streetscapes. The only problem, short of a few engineering considerations that failed DOT standards, was this plan was significantly more expensive than the DOT’s favorite plans.

And so, after numerous public forums, the DOT had to move ahead. Funds got diverted to more shovel-ready projects in the state, and an Asheville’s complex interchange, sometimes compared to Atlanta’s Spaghetti Junction, continues to be a trap for automobiles to idle and unnecessarily exhaust greenhouse emissions during rush hour.

And so, once again, government attempted to stand up and take a stance. Both the city and county decided to sign a joint resolution. Asheville City Council is supposed to adopt it on March 25. At the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, the measure received unanimous support.

The commissioners’ resolution started out supporting the philosophy that traffic planning should facilitate people’s attempts to move from place to place, rather than favor one type of transportation over another. It declared that the I-26 connector was a “critical route” used by increasing numbers of travelers, and, as such, it should provide a “minimally disruptive” flow of traffic.

The resolution was prompted by a new method of scoring used by the DOT in prioritizing projects. Since a number of alternatives had been proposed through the years, the resolution asked that the DOT evaluate Alternative 3C, with $230 million as the cost of upgrading the northernmost part of the work, Section B.

But, as a compromise with citizen demands, it asked that plans “clearly include elements that will address community needs for sound barriers and bicycle, pedestrian, and neighborhood connections.” It further stated, “in the event that the selected design alternative does not include modifications to the I-240 infrastructure on the east side of the French Broad River to support urban redevelopment, improved connection of neighborhoods, and improvements to local traffic patterns; local governments will evaluate a separate future project through the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization.” The City of Asheville has already allocated $1 million toward such a project. The resolution also asked the DOT to be open to reducing the scale of the project should studies show it is practicable.

Whereas Chair David Gantt spoke of the resolution as a demonstration of political will to move forward with improvements, Commissioner Brownie Newman assured the public the Asheville Design Center’s plans were not being dashed. He described the resolution as a measure to keep all alternatives alive, rather than to endorse a single one. It seemed the resolution was speaking with forked tongue. Commissioner Mike Fryar said it was a “fake” resolution because it low-balled the cost for competitive bidding and then left an out for coming back for additional funding. He thought the highway project should only concern itself with the highway and not any urban frills.

The alternative currently favored by the DOT would cost $20 million less than the next inexpensive proposal, and it would cut the number of properties to be seized by eminent domain in half. Alternative 3C would only require the razing of 19 homes and 15 businesses.

Commissioner David King argued that not trying to move forward would be a vote for exacerbating the traffic maelstrom. This position was supported by various business interests.

Speaking against the proposal was Steve Rasmussen, representing what appears to be a newly-formed coalition called I-26 ConnectUs. Rasmussen and Julie Mayfield, executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, argued that more environmental impact analysis was in order. Rasmussen argued Alternative 3C did not support master plan visions. He wanted a boulevard connecting West Asheville and downtown.

Prior to the meeting, the Asheville Design Center issued a press release opposing the resolution. It indicated the city and county were considering the joint resolution at the prompting of the DOT, and that the new method of prioritizing projects wrongly placed too much weight on project costs. “Alternatives for the project,” it read, should be based on fulfilling programmatic requirements first, then the project can be refined to address budgetary constraints.”

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