3/31/2011 - I-26 Connector Update
by Mark Barrett
Asheville-The state Department of Transportation has proposed putting one of the city's most hotly debated issues of
the past two decades on ice, moving to strip funding for the I-26 Connector at least until 2020.
A draft, 10-year Transportation Improvement Program contains no money for the $556 million project, which would
expand Interstate 240 in West Asheville from four lanes to eight and create a new French Broad River crossing.
The state already has spent $14.2 million on planning and acquiring land, though local government agencies, business groups and neighborhood activists had never reached agreement on a route.
"I'm certain it's an awful lot of hours that not just me but the whole community has spent discussing that project," said former Mayor Louis Bissette, who co-chaired a committee that tried to find consensus on issues related to the project.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Bissette said. "People are going to continue to get injured out there (on I-240), and there are going to be accidents, and it's going to continue to stop up the works," he said.
The state Board of Transportation is scheduled to adopt the 2011-20 Transportation Improvement Program in
July. It is the subject of a public meeting in Morganton today.
The connector project ranked poorly on a proposed DOT priority list last year. The omission from the state's list of road projects worth funding is further confirmation construction will, at the minimum, be delayed for years.
The Board of Transportation also is asking DOT staff to see if there is a way to include money for smaller sections of urban loop projects in subsequent plans, but that may not result in much change in the I-26 Connector schedule.
Long time coming Discussion of the connector project began after the state General Assembly in 1989 included an urban loop project in Asheville on the list of highway projects to be funded by increases in taxes and fees.
The connector was conceived as a way to deal with traffic congestion and safety issues on Smoky Park Bridge and on Interstate 240 in West Asheville.
DOT and a committee of local residents agreed in the early 1990s the project should run largely along the route of I-240 instead of making a wider loop through northwestern Buncombe County. Most of the traffic the connector would handle is local.
State plans in 1998 called for the connector to be completed in 2008 or 2009.
But controversy over how wide the road should be, where new bridges across the French Broad should be and how those bridges should connect to existing roads went on for years. DOT repeatedly pushed back projected construction dates.
DOT added changes to the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange to the project and has been looking at ways to separate interstate and local traffic on Smoky Park Bridge, both at the request of local residents.
A DOT engineer involved in planning for the project said that work has been suspended because it appears no money will be available to build it for years to come.
Betty Lawrence, a local attorney who was among opponents of DOT's original plans, said it makes sense to scale the project back to focus primarily on ways of moving traffic around Smoky Park Bridge.
"I think that the fiscal reality is such that we're not going to get the project as planned in the foreseeable future," she