Planning for the I-26 Connector project began way back in 1985 when WNC officials were eager to get an interstate highway running through the region because they believed it would bring the economic growth that was sorely needed three decades ago. This began the stop-and-start history of the I-26 Connector that has now lasted for over three decades.
In 1988, highway boosters used the threat of Tennessee getting the interstate to spur NC efforts. With the support of the construction and transportation industries, the State created a Highway Trust Fund that included money for the I-26 project.
From 1989 to 1994, numerous public planning meetings were held to determine the route and transportation goals of the I-26 Connector highway project. NCDOT completed the Phase 1 environmental review for the project based on that input. The Asheville community asked that the I-26 plans not support urban sprawl.
In 1997, the City of Asheville decided to ask that the I-26 project include improvements that addressed the connections between I-240, I-26 and I-40. This request greatly expanded the entire scope of the project and resulted in plans for an eight-lane I-240 section.
Between 2004 and 2010, Asheville convened a group of volunteers associated with the Asheville Design Center to design a “signature bridge” over the French Broad River to remove everything but local traffic from Patton Avenue. The group of landscape and residential architects, as well as city and transit planners sought community input that eventually led to the creation of a plan for a double-decker bridge on a narrow footprint. The project ended up stalling, however, when Democratic Governor Bev Perdue announced her intentions in 2010 to prioritize urban loop highway projects.
In 2012, a small group of seven people led by Mountain True Executive Director Julie Mayfield started meeting to find ways to push the I-26 Connector project forward based on the ADC-designed signature bridge rather than stepping back to determine what the best approach should be on the I-26 Connector project in what was then a growing and thriving destination city. This effort resulted in resurrecting a project that was no longer on the State’s priority list for transportation projects.
The current plans for I-26 that were presented in the environmental review that NCDOT released in October 2015 ignored the numerous concerns that have been stated by Asheville residents for well over a decade. While NCDOT adopted a route called 4B that the City of Asheville then endorsed at the urging of new City Council member Julie Mayfield, it bears little resemblance to the 4B designed by the Asheville Design Center in 2009. This was to be expected because the ADC members who worked on the plan had no expertise in highway design and so couldn’t possibly know the complex engineering standards involved in designing a federal interstate. NCDOT took advantage of that expertise gap to create a monstrosity of an eight-lane highway that includes three new highway spans over the French Broad River. This is truly an example of the old adage, “be careful of what you ask for – you might just get it!”
More history of the I-26 Connector project can be found at these links:
- 2003 Political History of I-26: http://mountainx.com/news/community-news/0716tennessee-php/
- The Group Behind the I-26 Push: https://mountainx.com/news/community-news/behind_the_i-26_push/
- The Great Work of the I-26 Connect Us Group: http://www.i26connectusproject.org/Home/project-history
- History Straight from NCDOT: https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/i26connector/download/project_history.pdf