(Photo: North Carolina Department of Transportation)
ASHEVILLE – A historic road project is advancing toward key start dates — but city leaders say questions remain about the massive Interstate 26 rerouting, including its effect on walkers, cyclists and a potential expansion of downtown.
"This will be the largest transportation project probably in Western North Carolina history and certainly in the City of Asheville," said City Councilwoman and environmental activist Julie Mayfield speaking about the I-26 Connector project whose last cost estimate topped out at $800 million.
"It will dictate in my view the character of the city for decades to come."
Mayfield made the comments this month as the North Carolina Department of Transportation prepares for a Dec. 4 public hearing on the project that will feature a new bridge over the French Broad River. The hearing next month will be one of the last official opportunities for public comment on the project. Plans for widening Riverside Drive can also be available.
DOT has been eyeing plans to reroute the interstate for least two decades. Now, following years of resident pushback and negotiations with Asheville officials, the project is closing in on a 2020 start date.
The project has three sections: The "A" section includes widening and other changes through West Asheville. "B" involves the new bridge. And "C" covers improvements to the south on I-26 and west on I-40.
The most recent cost estimate was listed as $600-$800 million on the DOT website. DOT staff said Tuesday that estimate would soon be updated.
Activists are pleased plans were adjusted to remove interstate traffic from the current interstate path over the river, the Bowen Bridge. They were also happy room was made for a network of greenways around the project. Better pedestrian connections for the isolated Hillcrest subsidized housing complex and the historic African-American neighborhood of Burton Street were other city proposals adopted in the state plan.
But city representatives say they remain concerned over whether room will be made on Bowen Bridge for people on foot and on bikes, a concept that could allow easy multimodal connections between downtown and West Asheville.
DOT plans have shown two lanes of traffic on the eastbound section of the bridge but four on the westbound. City representatives want two lanes both ways to allow room for greenways.
City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield (Photo: Angeli Wrightemail@example.com)
Activists and city officials also say they want DOT to redraw the area where Bowen Bridge meets the west side of downtown. The change could allow land that is now taken up by swooping ramps and other interstate connections to be used instead for new businesses and housing.
"The maps don’t reflect everything the city has asked for," said Mayfield. The councilwoman called the Bowen Bridge configuration and the possible freeing up of property on the edge of downtown, "extremely important points."
DOT spokesman David Uchiyama said the project is still open to those kind of changes and that state officials, city staff and elected officials "will continue sharing ideas."
Next steps include the Dec. 4 public hearing, the signing of a record of decision in 2019 and then the hiring of a contractor who will be responsible for designing and building the project, which includes portions through West Asheville.
MORE: Local backing helped make I-26 Connector route choice
MORE: State DOT, Asheville butt heads on I-240, I-26 Connector before vote
Interstate 26 Connector public hearing
Tuesday, December 4.
Renaissance Asheville Hotel 31 Woodfin Street (Grand Ballroom)
4-6:30 p.m. Pre-hearing open house
7 p.m. Formal presentation
DOT representatives will be available 4-6:30 p.m. to answer questions and receive comments on the project. There will also be an opportunity to submit written comments or questions. A formal presentation will begin at 7 p.m.. Afterward an opportunity for verbal comments will be provided. The hearing will be open to those present for statements, questions and comments. The presentation and comments will be recorded and a transcript will be prepared.