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The North Carolina Department of Transportation proposes the construction of a new interstate highway (TIP Project No. I-2513) to connect I-26 from the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange southwest of Asheville to US 19-23-70 north of Asheville. This new interstate will connect I-26 with I-81 south of Kingsport, Tennessee. The I-26 Connector is currently in the project development and environmental analysis phase.
The proposed I-26 Connector in Asheville includes:
- Upgrading 2.5 miles of existing I-240 from the I-26/I-240 interchange with I-40 to the I-240 interchange with Patton Avenue, west of the French Broad River.
- Improvements to the I-26/I-240 interchange with I-40 and Brevard Road (N.C. 191), Amboy Road (S.R. 3556), Haywood Road (S.R. 3548/U.S. 19/23 Business) and Patton Avenue (U.S. 19-23) interchanges.
Construction of the interstate on new location from the Patton Avenue interchange north for 1.2 miles across the French Broad River, tying into US 19/23/70 south of Broadway Street (S.R. 1781). The project length from the I-40 interchange to Broadway Street is 5.1 miles.
The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce has invited Transportation Secretary Tony Tata and state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker to come to a May meeting about a $500 million project to improve Interstate 26 and other highways.
The project would build a new interchange between I-26 and Interstates 40 and 240, build new bridges over the French Broad River and improve the interchange between I-240 and I-26 on the north side of the city.
Business leaders plan to point out how I-26 is now the economic backbone of western North Carolina.
ASHEVILLE — Local government and business officials have begun an effort to get the state moving on a long-delayed project to siphon traffic from Bowen Bridge and revamp Interstate 240 in West Asheville. The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce hopes to get two members of new Gov. Pat McCrory’s cabinet to visit in May to discuss ways to accelerate work on the roughly $500 million project, called the I-26 Connector.
Freshman state Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, has been appointed to the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and says getting action on the project is one of his top three priorities. City Councilman Jan Davis, chairman of the group of area government officials that works with the state on transportation priorities for Buncombe and adjoining counties, said the group has been working for months to build support for movement on the project.
“We’re not just sitting back waiting for something to happen,” Davis said. “We’ve got to elevate this” as a priority.
Years of discussion
Area residents have been debating the I-26 Connector since the General Assembly passed legislation in 1989 that dramatically increased highway funding and identified the project as one of a handful of urban “loop” roads the new money would pay for.
The project would involve adding bridges connecting to U.S. 19-23 north of Bowen Bridge, widening I-240 in West Asheville and building a new I-40/I-26/I-240 interchange on the eastern side of town.Environmentalists and many West Asheville residents have criticized plans to widen I-240 in that area to eight lanes, arguing that would harm neighborhoods and would be overkill.There have been lengthy debates over just how the bypass of the Bowen Bridge over the French Broad River should be routed and whether plans should include a new way for bicyclists and pedestrians to use the existing bridge.
The lack of consensus on those questions slowed the project, Ramsey says.“It’s not the state government’s blame entirely that I-26 hasn’t happened,” he said. “Some of it has to come back to our community. When the money was available, we weren’t ready.”
In the meantime, higher gas prices, increased fuel efficiency and limits on the gas tax have weakened the state’s ability to pay for new roads.
Dramatic growth in some of the state’s larger metropolitan areas and a move by the N.C. Department of Transportation to more rigorously and objectively evaluate the costs and benefits of highway projects have combined to move the I-26 Connector lower among DOT priorities.
For those reasons and others, people involved in the effort to give the connector project new life say it won’t happen overnight.
“The bottom line is we’ve got a statewide problem,” Ramsey said. “We’re not going to be able to take money from the existing pie and say we’re going to be able to put $500 million on I-26 tomorrow.”
The Asheville chamber has invited state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata and state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker to come to a meeting here May 9 to discuss ways to get the connector project built.
Vince Rhea, a DOT engineer working on the project, says a draft document outlining the department’s preferred plans for the entire connector will probably be forthcoming at the end of 2014.
Current state plans call for construction of a wider I-240 project in West Asheville to begin in 2020. They do not contain any money for the two other components of the connector project: a bypass of Bowen Bridge and improvements to the I-40/I-26/I-240 interchange on the western edge of town.
On the eastern end of Bowen Bridge “I-26 comes down to one lane (in each direction), and this is the center of Asheville,” said Kit Cramer, chamber president and CEO. “That’s not a good situation. It’s not a safe situation. It doesn’t help us from an economic development perspective.”
The chamber is also inviting elected officials from neighboring counties to the May 9 gathering in the belief that the project will have impacts outside Buncombe County, Cramer said.
“I-26 runs right through the heart of Western North Carolina and connects us to two other states. We think it’s an economic development corridor,” she said.
Davis, chairman of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization board, said he raised the issue with McCrory when the governor came here for an open house Jan. 7. There have also been informal discussions among members of City Council and the county Board of Commissioners, he said.
Ramsey said the McCrory administration may propose a package of changes to improve the state’s infrastructure at some point.
But many of the obstacles that have prevented construction so far remain.