The I-26 connector represents the final piece in a long-running puzzle that will extend the road -- which originally ran from Charleston, S.C., to Asheville -- to Interstate 81 north of Johnson City, Tenn. The Tennessee section of the road, built to interstate standards in the '70s, was originally designated as Interstate 181 in 1985, and the DOT opened the $230, nine-mile stretch between Mars Hill and the state line in 2003. The portion of U.S. 19/23 between Asheville and Mars Hill is currently designated as "future I-26." But each stage of the work has created a potential bottleneck where the upgraded highway joined local roads not designed to handle a greater volume of interstate traffic.
And once the DOT's planners began focusing on Asheville, they collided head-on with residents and community groups still fuming over the way Interstate 240 was carved through West Asheville and downtown at the expense of existing neighborhoods -- and determined to avoid a repeat of this scenario. For more than a decade, the two sides have periodically traded accusations and objections about the proposed road, and a July 2000 public design forum failed to resolve the dispute.
Enter the Asheville Design Center. Established in 2006 with a grant from the American Institute of Architects, the nonprofit -- formed by local architects who volunteer their time -- analyzed the plans released by the DOT and saw an opportunity. Unsatisfied with those designs, the group sought to identify an approach that would use less land and thus get the job done less expensively.
And back in January, City Council endorsed the ADC's design, alternative 4b, on a 6-1 vote. At that point, the design had already been through some adjustments. Late last year, City Council and the Board of Commissioners hired the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Figg Bridge Engineers to address technical concerns raised by the DOT, which has consistently expressed grave doubts about the design's feasibility. And considering that the state agency had previously gone so far as to try to eliminate alternative 4b from the running, proponents of the design found the January developments promising.
Since then, however, Figg, the DOT and the Federal Highway Administration have engaged in an extensive back and forth -- ostensibly to address DOT concerns about the plan -- that has dramatically altered the concept, according to architect Alan McGuinn of the Design Center. Perhaps the most fundamental change involves piling the interstate on top of Patton Avenue, rather than the other way around. The flip, says McGuinn, resulted from changes to the entrance and exit ramps and the traffic model used by the DOT. Every time Figg submitted a new design, he says, it appears that the DOT sent it back for additional fixes.
At this point, Design Center members are busy analyzing Figg's maps to determine whether they can live with the changes -- and debating how they should react to the latest iteration, received from Figg last month.
For now, the group seems to be erring on the side of diplomacy. Although at least one member initially proposed rejecting the revisions outright, McGuinn is arguing that even in its current form, 4b is a better alternative than any of the options proposed by the DOT. First of all, he notes, it preserves the separation of I-26 and Patton Avenue, allowing for the development of a boulevard-type gateway into downtown from West Asheville. The route is also preferable, he maintains, freeing up more land for infill development.
"There is a version that follows our path -- that's the success story for the ADC right now," says McGuinn. "We still feel this is a much better plan that the others."
Figg is expected to formally present the new design in September, says McGuinn, giving the community and Design Center members a chance to see more than just maps. Figg, he says, is noted for the artistry in its bridge designs, which can be better represented by a computer rendering.
"We don't know how this will look or feel, and we want to know more," McGuinn explains.
Meanwhile, for the DOT, the next step is an environmental-impact study, whose results will also be factored into the matrix used to choose the final plan.
And with other options falling by the wayside, 4b's prospects appear to be improving, ADC members say. Of the six original alternatives for the bridge (five produced by the DOT plus the one submitted by the Design Center), two have already been killed by the agency. And two others fail to segregate I-26 traffic from Patton Avenue -- a critical feature endorsed early on in a vote by the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The official advisory group is made up of representatives of 18 local governments, and both MPO and city approval are expected to weigh pretty heavily in the final design-selection process.
That leaves alternatives 4 and 4b as the most likely options -- and McGuinn says he's reluctant to take any action that might steer the state agency away from his preferred option. Compared with alternative 4, says the ADC, 4b would split interstate traffic from Patton Avenue, turn the local road into a boulevard, and preserve more land for future development.
Meanwhile, CEO Linda Figg has continued to praise the results of her company's work, calling the collaborative process with the DOT a success. Both the state agency and the Federal Highway Administration have deemed the retooled version acceptable, notes Figg, adding that she's emphasized the importance of reducing the structure's footprint as much as possible. The next step is a full-blown presentation by Figg of its current proposal, slated for sometime in september. Stay tuned.