Asheville - The North Carolina Department of Transportation cleared a major hurdle in the progress of the I-26 Connector project, with the selection of the recommended least environmentally damaging routes for the three sections of the proposed seven-mile interstate project.
"We have taken a huge step toward the realization of the I-26 Connector, which is of vital importance to the Western North Carolina region and so many places between the coast in South Carolina up into the Ohio Valley region," said Jay Swain, Division 13 Engineer. "This project will greatly enhance all aspects of our economy including the booming tourism industry, as well as increase safety for all motorists in the area."
Transportation improvement projects like this one fit into Governor McCrory's 25-Year Transportation Vision to enhance travel safety and to better connect North Carolinians to jobs, education, healthcare and recreation opportunities.
The choice for Section A includes expanding the existing I-240 four-lane roadway from the I-26/I-240 interchange to the I-240 interchange at Patton Avenue. There would be upgrades of the interchanges at Brevard Road, Amboy Road, and Haywood Road. It would also extend Amboy Road across I-240 to Brevard Road, opposite Shelburne Road.
The Section B choice would put the interstate on a new location from the Patton Avenue interchange to across the French Broad River just north of the Captain Jeff Bowen bridges, and connect with U.S. 19/23/70. It would allow Patton Avenue to become a local street, opening up access for bicycles and pedestrians along the roadway.
The selection for Section C calls for upgrades for interchanges at Smokey Park Highway (U.S. 19/23/74A), as well as I-26/I-240 and Brevard Road. It would maintain the existing two-level configuration of the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange and add additional through lanes, as well as a new loop from I-240 West to I-40 East and a ramp from I-40 West to I-240 East.
"We have listened to the community's input, held extensive meetings with a vast array of people and agencies on one of the most important transportation decisions our community has faced," said David Brown, Division 13 Board of Transportation member. "I am pleased to have arrived at a very important consensus that will help us move forward with such a grand undertaking."
The decision was reached Wednesday after a thorough review of the results from an environmental impact study conducted for the three sections. It reviewed impacts on the environment, homes and businesses, parks, community facilities, historic sites, and the costs associated with each option. The decision was also based in part on comments made on the 2015 draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) by the public, local governments, state and federal governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations.
Details about the selection of the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA) routes, the decision-making process, and maps of the selections can be found on the I-26 Connector website.
The next step is identifying design details such as re-evaluation of the number of lanes. Additional steps to further reduce environmental impacts will be considered and implemented into the preliminary designs.
In addition to summarizing these findings in a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), they must be presented to local governments and state and federal agencies before the FEIS can be approved. That is tentatively expected in Spring 2017, depending on the outcome of these remaining tasks.
It is projected that property acquisition could begin as early as 2019 with construction beginning in 2021, and costs could run around $690 million.
Projects such as this are funded through the Strategic Mobility Formula, a new way of more efficiently investing transportation dollars by using a data-driven scoring process along with local input to fund more projects and create more jobs. The new mobility formula was passed into law in 2013 under Governor McCrory’s leadership.
The I-26 Connector will provide a better transportation facility connecting I-26 south of Asheville with U.S. 19/23/170 north of the City. In addition, increasing traffic volumes have reduced the service along I-240 on the west side of Asheville. It currently does not meet modern interstate design standards and has a crash rate higher than the state average.