It's not too late to speak your mind about the I-26 Connector project, which is slated for completion by the year 2008. An educational forum on the project will be held on Thursday, June 15, 6:30-9:30 p.m. in UNCA's Lipinsky Auditorium.
Former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette announced the forum on June 1, explaining, "There are possibilities for [citizens] to affect the design in many ways. ... We're trying to get the whole community together and talk about this thing in a rational way."
Bissette serves on the I-26 Community Coordinating Committee, created last April. The committee's membership includes neighborhood residents, local-government officials, and representatives of environmental and quality-of-life organizations, businesses and transportation interests.
In the past year, opposition to the project has arisen from residents and some City Council members, particularly over concerns that the Department of Transportation's plan to widen I-240 to eight lanes through West Asheville -- which would require the destruction of homes and businesses. Before this, a citizens committee -- called the I-26 Connector Awareness Group -- and, subsequently, City Council -- had approved a plan for a six-lane road through the area. DOT later justified its eight-lane plan, citing revised traffic estimates.
"The perception was that [the eight-lane proposal] was a done deal. That's not the reality," said DOT Project Manager Drew Joyner, who recently teamed up with Bissette, Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick and I-26 Connector Awareness Group representative Ron Ainspan to announce the public-education forum. The project, Joyner explained, is "still in the design stage," and citizens have a narrow window of opportunity for suggesting design changes, which would cover overall design (including the number of lanes), lane configuration, landscaping, amenities such as soundwalls, and the routing of a new bridge to bypass the already-at-capacity Smokey Park Bridge, near downtown (one option would cut through part of the Sunspree golf course; another would obliterate the Westgate Shopping Center).
Joyner emphasized that the forum "is a good-faith effort on everyone's part" to get more input from the public without further delaying the project; construction is slated to begin in 2003.
Ainspan, whose group has criticized several project elements, offered, "This may be the beginning of a new image and a new era for the DOT."
"Our hope is that we can have some sort of consensus," said Bissette. The forum will include presentations by DOT representatives, interstate-design experts and city staff. A question-and-answer session will also be featured, as well as the chance for attendees to break into groups to address various aspects of the project, such as its environmental impact, he mentioned.
In a follow-up to the June meeting, a design forum has been scheduled for the week of July 17.
For more information about the forums, contact Ron Fuller at 259-5842.
-- Margaret Williams