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Zombie I-26 connector shows signs of life—again

future I-26  RS


Corps of Engineers to take public input Nov. 16

By Roger McCredie- Question:  What’s seven miles long, half a century old and doesn’t move?

Answer:  The I-26 Connector project.

Plans for the routing and construction of a new stretch of highway linking Interstate 26 from its present southern terminus just southwest of Asheville to U.S. 23 (or “Future I-26”) near Weaverville have again emerged from their fiscal/political/bureaucratic cave.  They stand blinking in the pale November sunlight. in the form of a book-sized environmental impact study submitted by the Army Corps of Engineers, and can be viewed and commented on November 16 at an input session sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The study itself, completed last month by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, is the latest chapter in the ongoing story of attempts to complete the North Carolina portion of Interstate 26, linking it to Tennessee’s portion, which stops at the state line at Sam’s Gap at the edge of Madison County.  Once the missing link is finished, I-26 will run uninterrupted from Charleston to Johnson City.

Once completed.  DOT’s study indicates work could begin on the hub of the project – the transformation of the tangled I-26 interchange with I-240 and Patton Avenue – by 1921.  Based on that start date, DOT says, the connector could actually be in place as early as 2033.

The plan to have I-26 circumnavigate Asheville is almost as old as I-26 itself, which was constructed as part of the network of “superhighways” begun during the Eisenhower administration.  The connector was under discussion as early as the 1960’s but initial talk petered out and the whole connector idea lay fallow until 1985.  That was when officials in Johnson City decided to turn U.S. 23 – which had been upgraded to interstate standards during the 1970’s – into Interstate 181 within its city limits by the simple expedient of adding Interstate highway markers.

The move sparked Tennessee’s move to turn U.S. 23 into I-26, and Tennessee legislators convinced North Carolina legislators to hop on the I-26 Express.  The highway, they said, would reach eventually all the way into Ohio and would channel a river of commerce southwestward from there to Charleston.  Tennessee’s siren song led North Carolina to commit to its own I-26 project, at an anticipated cost, in 1980’s money, of some $237 million.

Nevertheless, the project became known as “the paper connector.”  Repeated legal maneuvering and political ping-pong deterred action for years.  The reemergence of plans for the work now coincide with the transformation of West Asheville from a sleepy blue collar neighborhood to a booming, trendy destination now cheek by jowl with the new jewel in Asheville’s economic crown, the sprawling New Belgium brewery.

The boomtown-like economic explosion of West Asheville has reopened fears about the impact of a superhighway through that part of town.

Uppermost in the minds of those likely to be affected is the question of how many lanes the highway will consist of.  DOT has been proceeding on the premise that eight lanes are needed to carry anticipated traffic, and the eight-lane specification is the only one mentioned in the DOT report.  But since that number has met with increasingly vocal resistance from residents and businesses since at least the year 2000.  Frequently cited has been a report that indicates eight lanes (versus six) would shave a grand total of 6.9 seconds off the projected 6.5 minute driving time it would take to traverse the connector.

Six lanes, the eight-lane opponents say, is quite enough, and even at that the effect of having an interstate slice obliquely through West Asheville will be staggering.

“I am very worried that it could kill my business. I have 20 employees whose livelihoods depend on image 420.” Says Lane Reid, who owns a screen printing business on Haywood Road, West Asheville’s main thoroughfare.  Reid says construction of the connector as presently laid out will turn his short commute to work into a labyrinthine nightmare and will wreak havoc on getting orders to his customers.

“I don’t think I can use drones,” Reid says.

Equally important, critics say, is the likelihood that the project as presently laid out will have the greater negative effect on poor and minority populations. Altogether, according to the report, 81 homes and 17 businesses would be taken by eminent domain, many of them in lower income areas; moreover, reconfiguration of the street plan would result in greater travel expense for those least able to afford it, they maintain.

Followers of the connector’s long, slow walk down the corridor of years point out that while concerns and misgivings are well founded based on the contents of the long range plan, no bulldozers have been hauled into place and the first orange traffic cone is still a long way from being set out.  They point out that the entire project dropped entirely off DOT’s to-do list in 2010.  “It could happen again,” one watcher said.

The Corps of Engineers’ public hearing will be held Monday, November 16, in the Radisson’s grand ballroom.  An open house will be held from 4:00 till 6:30 p.m., with the formal presentation to begin at 7 p.m.  All members of the public are invited to attend.

Additionally, public comments may be addressed to :  Drew Joyner, NCDOT, 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, 27699-1598 or  Comments must be received by December 16.

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