I-26 Connector: Next StepsBy
The following guest post courtesy of Joe Minicozzi.
Over the next several weeks, there will be votes at the City, the County and the MPO to endorse Alternative 3 for the purposes of prioritization of funding. This is key for several reasons. For one, our State is setting up a scoring system that weighs “cost” at a greater amount than anything else. As a taxpayer, I do admire being fiscally prudent, but as a resident of Buncombe and Asheville, it gives me pause. Primarily because this is a Federal project, of which, the majority of funds will come from the Federal Government. As such, the Feds have certain laws in place to protect us from how their projects impact our community, and they don’t just weigh the cost of concrete in their projects. This deal with NCDOT may end up to be a Faustian way to get us to subjugate our Federal rights to have the project that best fits our community.
The main binding Federal document is known as NEPA, and it was enacted by the Nixon Administration after several decades of communities using federal dollars for federal projects to do some pretty heinous things, like running highways through communities of low wealth (because its cheaper to buy a poor person’s house than a rich person’s) even though it wasn’t the most efficient path, or communities destroyed environmentally beneficial areas, like wetlands. The latter would effectively hampering their own water systems, because it was an expedient thing to do. With NEPA, the Feds are basically said, ‘if you’re using our money, you need to tell your communities about all the reasonable alternatives on a project, and show them how they are being affected so they can see the cost benefit of the options; and then they can make the choice.’ Additionally, the Feds go further to say ‘you need to follow all the locally adopted plans.’ because there was a history of State officials ignoring local community desire. The process of doing all this is known as the Environmental Impact Statement, and the study should cover environmental, social, cultural, historical, as well as economic and opportunity cost of decisions. The Feds leave all this up to the state to run. Put simply, the feds hand the money to the states, and the states design the alternatives and run the impact statement. But the local communities get do decide what they want. They are best at weighing the impacts, and they also have to live with them. The key thing here, is knowing the alternatives (note that its plural) and their impacts.
In 1989, NCDOT initiated the process of creating the I-26 connector through Asheville. By the late 90’s, NCDOT emerged with several alternatives for creating a connector. The word “alternatives” is important because the Federal Government obligates the state DOTs to do so. The community can do this in full understanding of the impacts. Seeing the alternatives and The I-26 project is really 3 projects. There is Section A, which runs through West Asheville, connecting Sections B and C, the latter two are basically interchanges. The connection of I-26 and I-40 in section C and the connection of I-26 across the river in Section B. It should be noted that in understanding the impacts, in the year 2000, the city and county wisely turned down endorsing alternatives 2 and 3 in section B at the MPO. In doing so, they asked for new alternatives that would take interstate traffic off of Patton Avenue. This wasn’t the only item, as there is a great list of requests captured in the Community Coordinating Committee (CCC) document, including fixing the I-40/I-26 interchange (which became Section C). At that time, NCDOT went back to the drawing board. In 2004, they came back with two new Alternatives for Section B named Alternatives 4 and 5. The Asheville Design Center (ADC) was created around this time to modify Alternative 4 because it was quite excessive and didn’t meet the spirit of the CCC in that it didn’t “minimize the footprint” of the highway. During the study, DOT would deem their own design for Alternative 5 as below standard, and they removed it. They would go on to remove Alternative 2 for the same reasons, but they would include an amended Alternative 4B (not the design created by the Asheville Design Center). Perhaps the words of the then NCDOT Administrator were prescient, when the ADC started the process of working with NCDOT, Mr. Tippett would joke, “Its not a surprise to anyone that we’re really not known for our effective community engagement.” Boy, ain’t that the truth. As we started the process of working with DOT, we would sit through endless meetings of DOT staff telling us the ADC design had “fatal flaws” without them ever pointing out where they were. And its not like we just drummed up people in the street to work, the ADC pulled together area architecture, landscape architecture, engineers, real estate experts, etc. to commit thousands of hours of service (for free) to help produce a solution. In one year’s time, we counted over 2,000 hours of service from over 90 people. This came to a head when NCDOT presented to the City that the ADC design wouldn’t work, and their key piece of evidence was a cross-section that they designed to fail. Politely, the City and County thanked DOT for their service and commissioned their own professional and nationally recognized engineers (Figg and Lochner) to work out the solution and produce Alternative 4B to meet the needs of NCDOT.
Over the next year, and over $80,000 in City and County funds, the ADC would team with City and County appointees to work with the Figg-Lochner team. To put it mildly, the team bent over backwards to compromise Alternative 4B to satisfy NCDOT’s desires, until their desires became untenable. The contracted engineers drew a line in the sand because they felt the NCDOT suggestions were arbitrary and capricious. Additionally, it appeared to the ADC Board that the design was moving well away from the spirit of the original 4B design and into the realm of making 4B become back to Alternative 4. This was 2009, when the last rush for votes happened, and the Chamber requested the County to vote. It was notable that the NCDOT was not at that presentation to the County, but the citizens of the impacted area were. In spite of all the evidence, all of the public comment (two people supported Alt. 3, but over 100 supported 4B), the County voted to support Alt. 3 at the request of the Chamber. This was in direct contradiction to the City’s endorsement of Alternative 4B, as well as the City elimination of Alt. 3 in the CCC Report and the adoption of the CCC in the Comprehensive Plan.
Indeed, folks that are interested in the “least expensive” option. I can empathize with that. But there are flaws in the claims. For one, if they were intellectually honest about it, they’d also be the advocates for a 6 lane option for the whole project. As having 50% less asphalt and right-of-way than the eight-lane option, it should be a lot less expensive. However, we don’t know for sure, because we’ve never been given that option, even though the community asked for it. Additionally, these same folks should also be pretty peeved that our State created a draft impact statement that was so full of errors that it is essentially being redone. This has caused the delay from 2009. So not only is the State ignoring public input and adopted plans, it is also the main source for continued delay (and with it, continued cost to us taxpayers). The other statement from this gallery, is that they suggest that ‘we need to let the DOT professionals handle the work’, which is fine if they had the track record to prove it. Need we look any further to the existing situation of plowing an interstate onto a local road or the continued push for Alternative 3, which still has weaving issues that merge local and interstate traffic? Seriously. It’d be great to see what Federal Standard is being followed to support that dangerous design.
As a profession, transportation engineering isn’t even 100 years old. It is notable that architecture, landscape architecture and city planning are all more established. In some cases close to a century more. The Design Center brought all of those professions together to consider the design, as the impact area is close to 500 acres. This is about 4 times the traditional core of downtown Asheville, and the effect of the use of this land in our community will impact us for generations. Heck, we’re dealing with current conditions that were left us from decisions in the 60’s.
This also brings up the time issue. Benton MacKaye first articulated the idea of the Appalachian Trail at a conference in the 1920’s, 15 years later it was done. We’ve been talking about this project since 1989. That’s more than 15 years ago. This community has been very clear about its desires. Voted on them. Wrote them in the CCC and the City’s Comp Plan. They’ve even drawn their own solution. The delay isn’t coming from Asheville or Buncombe, but from a tone-deaf NCDOT. At every opportunity, NCDOT shoves us back in front of Alt. 3. Why? It doesn’t even meet Federal standards by keeping local traffic on a Federal Highway.
Think about that. Our community voted on what we’d prefer back in 2000, and out State officials toss it to the curb as insignificant comment, even though the Feds require the State to demonstrate the impact on local plans. In seeing that the State clearly isn’t interested with what our desires for our community are, what makes us believe that this vote would get us different behavior? Why vote on Alternatives, when we don’t even have an Impact Statement as required? Why was the last Impact Statement so erroneous that it was thrown out? There are lots of questions, and the fact that they had over 4 years to fix the Impact Statement and they haven’t done so, should raise a warning flag. The State is clearly showing its hand by pushing Alt. 3 ahead (again), but just with a different method. If we do sign on to Alternative 3, how do we ensure that we don’t lose our right to select another Alternative? How do we get our publicly voted desires upheld and our plans fulfilled? Not to mention that the reduced footprint would bring us the net present value of over $111,000,000 in new taxes to pay for local services that Alternative 3 will not. Or is it just another way to shove asphalt down our throat, so our grandchildren will wonder what idiot would put a Federal Highway on a local road, much in the way that we ponder the stupidity of the existing situation as we drive across the Bowen Bridge today?
The story is that Johann Faust sold his soul to the devil in exchange of gifts of alchemy, the same story is reflected in the tale of Robert Johnston. What are we getting in this “deal’, other than more asphalt? Where are our gifts of music or craft for this deal? It looks pretty one sided to me.