The I-26 Connector project requires thousands of decisions to be made on issues like how to reconfigure the Haywood Road/I-240 interchange and where to put sidewalks, bike lanes and greenway paths. Much of that work is being done in 2017.
(Photo: Citizen-Times file photo)
ASHEVILLE – Parts of the planned I-26 Connector project are getting skinnier, the state Department of Transportation says.
DOT has decided Interstate 240 in West Asheville will need to have only six travel lanes instead of the eight once planned, a DOT engineer working on plans for the project says.
That’s a result of closer study of expected traffic, engineer Derrick Weaver said Friday.
DOT is also backing off plans to widen Interstate 40 between the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange and Exit 44 on the western edge of the city to as many as 12 lanes, Weaver said.
More: Exit ramp here, sidewalk there: Planners working out I-26 Connector details
And, state engineers have decided to go along with a push by neighborhood residents to reduce the footprint of the project around Amboy Road, Brevard Road and I-240.
The I-26 Connector project also involves building a new crossing of the French Broad River north of Bowen Bridge, rebuilding the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange west of the WNC Farmers Market and making some changes to I-40 between that interchange and the U.S. 19-23 interchange to the west.
The next version of DOT’s master plan says DOT will award the contract for work on the new bridge and new interchange in 2020, although actual construction might not begin until the following year.
But the plan, scheduled to be adopted this week, contains no money for widening I-240 in between, in West Asheville. That means that work would not begin until at least 2028 and could start much later.
How much concrete?
How many lanes I-240 should be between the area west of Bowen Bridge and I-40 has been a point of debate almost since discussions of the I-26 Connector began in the late 1980s. The roughly 2.7-mile stretch of road has four travel lanes now.
DOT has generally said eight lanes were needed to move traffic through West Asheville, although it said in recent years it had not made a final decision – and some business interests, local officials and people who drive the road have agreed.
Many West Asheville residents and environmental activities have taken the opposite position, with some even arguing that the existing four lanes would be enough.
Because DOT’s master plan says construction on the I-240 section is still years away, the decision for six lanes could be revisited later if traffic conditions change significantly, Weaver said.
But for now, he said, DOT’s analysis of expected traffic flows indicates that a six-lane road would be enough until at least 2040.
"There are going to be some times, especially at peak hours, when it’ll feel more congested than others," Weaver said, but the ability of vehicles to move along the road will meet state and federal standards with six lanes.
Julie Mayfield, a city councilwoman and co-director of an environmental group that has pushed to minimize the impact of the project on neighbors, called DOT’s choice of six lanes "a huge step."
"What people have to remember is that this (debate) has been going on for close to 30 years now and this is the first time … that DOT has said something other than eight lanes. That is progress," she said.
Weaver said the amount of land needed for the project in West Asheville and the number of buildings that will have to be torn down to make way for the road there will not fall dramatically because of the decision.
A certain amount of space will be needed to keep traffic moving on the road during construction regardless, he said. Each new travel lane will be 12 feet wide.
The road will be wider than six lanes in places because there will be acceleration and deceleration lanes around interchanges.
Mayfield and West Asheville resident Steve Rasmussen, an activist who has pushed for a narrower road, said six lanes will still have less of a negative impact on West Asheville.
"A six-lane road is very different from an eight-lane highway. It’s much more appropriate for the scale of Asheville," Mayfield said.
"Eight lanes is huge. Eight lanes is what big cities have, and we’re not a big city," she said.
A wide road would encourage still more people to live in suburban areas and drive in and out of town to work, Rasmussen said.
He pointed to a phenomenon transportation engineers call "induced traffic" in which as more and wider roads are built, more vehicles drive on them.
Rasmussen said he would still like DOT to keep I-240 at four lanes and that even if the agency sticks to a six-lane plan, he hopes the highway’s expected footprint can be reduced.
Mayfield said there may be ways to tweak plans so that I-240 will take up less space than DOT says it needs, but it is not realistic to expect the freeway to have only four travel lanes.
"Do I wish it could stay four lanes? You bet," she said. "Do the numbers say it could stay four lanes? No."
Some concerns may linger that six lanes will not be enough to handle traffic.
Mayfield said she is not worried: "It’ll be plenty."
Mayfield said she had hoped a skinnier section of I-240 in West Asheville would also mean DOT could reduce the width of the new bridge across the French Broad River.
However, she said DOT engineers told her Thursday the bridge will still need six lanes.
In other areas, DOT is whittling down its plans.
DOT had looked at widening the short stretch of I-40 west of the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange to as many as 12 lanes as part of work to rebuild the interchange even though a project completed in 2009 had already widened it from four lanes to eight.
Traffic makes its way down Interstate 240 in West Asheville near the Brevard Road overpass in this 2016 photo.
That won’t be necessary, Weaver said Friday, although widening will be needed in places there because of planned changes to the interchange.
Still, the changes will be far more modest than some DOT considered that would have had major impacts on neighborhoods on either side of the road and added millions of dollars to the project’s cost.
DOT is dropping tentative plans to build a four-lane street to the north of I-240 between the Amboy Road and Brevard Road interchanges. It would have essentially been an extension of Amboy Road.
Residents on the southern ends of Fairfax and Virginia avenues had objected to the impact on their neighborhood. A proposal to instead put the street immediately adjacent to but separate from I-240, with two lanes to the south of I-240, came up at a DOT meeting with residents.
DOT has looked at the idea and decided to incorporate it into its plans, Weaver said.