Opinions vary, and folks are decidedly divided about a dangerous and bland stretch of highway. With all the factions assembled under one roof, former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette opined that "consensus involves compromise," at least where the I-26 Connector Project is concerned.
Those were fitting words to open a two-part design forum meant to garner the last word on a highway issue that has rankled Western North Carolina minds and hollows for 30 years. But even as the more than 300 folks filed into UNCA's Lipinksy Auditorium, dissenters stood beside the line preaching views that seemed to defy the possibility of the much-sought-after, communitywide consensus.
Even as the panel of experts tried to bring the audience up to speed on the project's history, making good arguments for and against various designs, catcalls rang out from the gallery. But the loud cheers and jeers that erupted that didn't always seem to jibe with the N.C. Department of Transportation's project analysis. One wonders whether this project -- no matter how it's designed (and it seems that it will be built, unless Asheville's nasty air earns the city the dreaded federal "nonattainment" designation) -- might not be destined to become a festering wound that will make the Beaucatcher Cut seem like a mere bug bite.
Only through broad-based public involvement, continued Bissette, could anyone hope to achieve communitywide support for any design. And there did seem to be broad public involvement --at the forum, anyway -- from mountain farmers living in Sams Gap (where construction is already under way), to past and present city and county leaders, to industrialists, city planners, neighborhood activists, small-business owners and environmentalists.
Meanwhile, anyone who follows such issues knows that Asheville isn't generally the easiest place to find common ground. In terms of the connector, there clearly exists a "he says, she says" mentality (which, incidentally, forum facilitator Mary Clayton tried to work through a couple of months ago without much success). She's a planning consultant with a reputation for helping communities and the DOT find that common ground where none seemed possible.
"In the first eight minutes I was here, I heard frustration and anger more times on this project than I ever have," she told participants in a small forum in April. She was urging them to put their differences aside, but it wasn't a mountain minute before the conciliatory atmosphere gave way to the same old arguments for and against.
For instance, some say that I-26 serves all of WNC, not just Asheville -- yet the highway runs right through downtown Asheville, directly affecting neighborhoods such as Chicken Hill. Some stress the connector's potential for promoting economic vitality and creating jobs; others note the road's role in furthering urban sprawl and increasing air pollution. The DOT's traffic-flow projections call for eight lanes on I-240; yet some folks maintain that eight lanes will produce traffic-induced gridlock. Tennessee has done its part to make U.S. 19/23 safe for high-speed interstate travel, argue project boosters, and now N.C. needs to do its part. Middle-of-the-roaders say we do need the connector built, but we don't want it so big and intrusive.
And all the while, the ghost of Walter Kulash still hovers over the city. No, Kulash -- an Orlando-based traffic engineer -- isn't dead. But since he told a packed auditorium last November that Patton Avenue and portions of I-240 could be turned into a gateway boulevard that families would want to stroll along, his name is whispered often in conversations about what this project could really do for the city. Similar beltway revamping, he pointed out, is already completed or under way in cities such as Chattanooga, Norfolk and Milwaukee.
Inspired by Kulash, it seemed, citizens turned out in huge numbers at community and Transportation Advisory Committee meetings last December to voice displeasure with the DOT's current plan. The massive project -- which involves expanding I-240 through West Asheville to eight lanes, and most likely gouging out the Westgate Shopping Plaza, to connect I-26 with U.S. 19/23 -- carries a projected price tag of $140 million. Noticing the large turnout at meetings concerning the project, Asheville City Council asked the DOT to join forces and present a design forum to get some citizen consensus on the design. The DOT noticed, too.
"I think we were a little overwhelmed with the amount of interest," admitted Tom Kendig, a DOT environmental engineer, regarding a meeting held at the Armory. "We were not ready for you; four or five hundred of you turned out."
For its part, the DOT -- which has a history of being less than receptive to public input on its projects, and which certainly created a few enemies in Asheville when it widened Broadway Avenue to four lanes -- reacted favorably to the design-forum idea as long it didn't delay the overall project.
This first part of the forum was designed, in part, to educate the participants on the need for the project (engineers and drivers alike say the interchange through West Asheville is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the state). Panelists recalled the 1964 construction of I-240, which sliced through the city, cutting off neighborhood roads like Amboy and Fairfax Avenue. They also presented a range of options, including three alternative routes, various design speeds, and aesthetic amenities some folks would like to see. Part two of the forum, tentatively scheduled for two days in late July, will try to meld the many ideas into an affordable and feasible project.
Meanwhile, the sniping wasn't confined to the audience. Panelists Kendig and Whit Rylee, who rehabilitates buildings in the Chicken Hill area, traded several verbal shots during the question-and-answer period. Someone asked how the project could mitigate the social and community impacts. "You would mitigate the impacts if you didn't widen the road," Rylee jumped in. "You wouldn't solve your transportation problems if you don't make the changes," Kendig fired back.
But Rylee had already won over the audience, it seemed, with his edifying (and very funny) presentation about how he thinks the project can improve the city. Much of his argument focused on the lack of adequate pedestrian thoroughfares around the bypass, separating Patton Avenue from the interstate. He also documented his harrowing adventures crossing the Smokey Park Bridge and, later, trying to walk down Fairview Road. He had some funny photos, too: One showed highway signs that totally obscure a view of downtown; another depicted a "No Tresspassing" sign posted at the sidewalk where Lexington meets Broadway, on that bit of land where people used to park their cars on under the freeway. Now it's just an ugly abandoned lot, Rylee observed, asking, "Isn't this public land?"
One thing that did come across well at the forum is just how complicated the proposed route really is. Ken Burelson, the lead design consultant contracted by the DOT, says he knows more about it than anybody else. For him, it's a battle to disturb the fewest neighborhoods, water resources, historical sites and commercial structures. He says he's considered three routes, and the first one has already been eliminated because it could have stirred up all kinds of unpleasantries buried in the old landfill running parallel to River Road. It would also have threatened historic Riverside Cemetery and affected a major Norfolk Southern rail line.
"I can remember, when I was a little boy, watching the fires burn down there," said Burelson, recalling the landfill.
The other routes require crashing through either the Westgate Shopping Plaza or the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort. Each route would take out at least 100 homes and many businesses, and affect both the Hominy and Smith Mill creeks. But Burelson seemed to favor the Westgate route, because the other one, he said, would require re-routing 1,000 feet of Hominy Creek. It would also cut through the existing cloverleaf (where I-240 joins Patton), escalating traffic nightmares during construction.
One wild card in this whole contentious business seems to be the air-quality issue. DOT stafferDavid Hyder told the audience that Buncombe County is very close to being designated a nonattainment area.
If the Environmental Protection Agency determines that ozone levels in the area are consistently too high, Buncombe County (and, therefore, any local industrial or highway projects) will come under federal scrutiny. What does that mean for the I-26 Connector? It could mean that the DOT will have to do extensive computer modeling to determine which design would most benefit local air quality: eight lanes, six lanes, or maybe no new road at all. This has stepped up the urgency, prompting more than one connector opponent to mutter, "Well, great. When can we get it?"