Lots Happening on the I-26 Connector Front

Suzanne Devane

Much has happened since I last updated neighbors about the status of the I-26 Connector project. Following the September 2016 informational forum with NCDOT officials for residents of Montford and Hillcrest, the MNA conducted two surveys—one specific to concerns about I-26 and the second one a generalized neighborhood planning survey. Both surveys demonstrated that there is widespread community concern; in fact, our community overwhelmingly voted in November 2016 that the I-26 Connector is the top challenge the MNA should be focusing on—with an amazing 81% stating it’s “very important.”

With that knowledge, we got to work at the MNA Board level. After much discussion on the city-wide impacts of the current highway design, the Board reached a consensus that educating and activating the public about the issue was not an issue specific to just Montford. As a result, the Don’t Wreck Asheville Coalition (DWAC) was formed with a group of volunteer grassroots activists (including many Montfordians) working quickly to build an informational website www.dontwreckasheville.org, secure Washington DC-based transportation counsel, and undertake outreach to Mayor Manheimer, City representatives, and NCDOT about our concerns surrounding the process and decisions made thus far.

As DWAC expected, NCDOT continues to claim that the people of Asheville want the eight-lane multi-highway elevated monstrosity it plans to build despite the data. NCDOT’s own publicly available data shows that projected traffic increases between 2014 and 2033 will be minimal. A detailed chart can be found at www.dontwreckasheville.org. In a nutshell, traffic volumes will increase just 11.7% on I-26 south of the Bowen Bridge, 17.3% on the actual bridge, and 25.9% on the part of I-26 running north of the bridge. Percentages are based traffic volume increases between what was traveling there daily in 2014 and what transportation planners project for 16 years from now in 2033.

To put that data in “people terms”—for every 100 cars now on I-26 south of the Bridge, there will be about 110 cars in 2033. For every 100 cars now traveling on the Bowen Bridge, there will be an additional 17 cars traveling that span in 2033; and just 26 more cars over a 24-hour period traveling with the existing 100 cars on I-26 north of the Bowen Bridge! When you understand it in those terms, it makes it all the more ridiculous to think that the State of North Carolina would spend nearly $1 billion in state and federal tax dollars to build the three-section six/eight-lane I-26 Connector that creates a spaghetti bowl jungle of highways, retaining walls, and noise walls at the western edge of our beautiful downtown.

Just imagine how nearly a decade of highway construction delays will impact the viability of all the hotels, restaurants, breweries, music venues, and stores that depend upon strong tourist traffic to thrive. After all, starting off a weekend getaway to Asheville won’t look quite as attractive when you know you’ll be sitting in bumper-to-bumper construction before enjoying your mini-break!

DWAC is happy to say we’re making some headway with City officials thanks to the receptiveness of Mayor Esther Manheimer to our suggestions. Based on our input, the City will be contracting with a multi-disciplinary consulting firm to undertake its own assessment of the I-26 Connector impacts so City officials can negotiate with NCDOT from a position of strength and knowledge. (See City Resolution No. 16-278 dated December 13, 2016, on the DWAC website.)

While these are the positives, we received some bad news when NCDOT announced in local media on January 17 that it is going to be fast-tracking the I-26 project by bonding the construction costs against future federal transportation dollars and contracting the construction through a “design-build” process. In response, DWAC has sent a letter to the city requesting that it make an official request to the transportation team appointed by newly elected governor Roy Cooper to place any additional planning for I-26 on hiatus until the Asheville consultants have been retained and can assess NCDOT’s plans and their impacts on Asheville.

So, stay tuned. Get involved by going to www.dontwreckasheville.org. Together, we can defend Asheville against the I-26 Godzilla Highway!!