The planned Interstate 26 connector. (NCDOT map)
A slew of high-profile road projects in the Asheville, N.C., area, including the I-26 Connector, are facing delays, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).
A revised schedule of projects from across the state was released by the agency in early September. Joining the I-26 Connector on the calendar of road jobs in Bumcombe County road jobs is the widening efforts on Sweeten Creek Road, N.C. Highway 191 and Sand Hill/Sardis Road.
NCDOT Division 13 engineer Mark Gibbs said many of the proposed changes will not impact actual construction dates, but some, including the schedule for the portion of the I-26 Connector around the I-40 interchange, will be pushed back.
He explained that the delays are due to a financial situation at the NCDOT that stems from the coronavirus pandemic; overspending in the previous fiscal year, which he primarily tied to unexpected natural disaster expenses; and rising cost estimates for the projects themselves.
"Obviously the first is the COVID-19 virus," Gibbs said.
NCDOT is a state tax-revenue funded department, with a gas tax serving as its primary source of revenue.
"When people stop driving, we stopped receiving revenue," he said. "So, our funding went down significantly over the last six months. It is starting to come back, and that's good news."
NCDOT officials also blamed their financial problems on unexpected repairs and cleanup after storms, including hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018. The department, too, reevaluated its projects and found "pretty significant cost increases across the board."
"Those are some factors as to why our revenues are about $3 billion down — and that's a projection over the next 10 years," he said. "When you have those kind of significant additional expenses and lost revenues, then you end up with having to go through this exercise to reprogram the STIP (Strategic Transportation Improvement Program)."
The schedule changes are still contingent upon approval from the state's 20-person Board of Transportation, which Gibbs said isn't set in stone, although items before the group are usually rubber-stamped. The board is set to discuss the matter during its October meeting.
The proposal also relies on the sale of $700 million in NC Build Bonds.
"We are hopeful that both of these things will happen, and the projects will move forward under the proposed schedule," he said. The modifications will not affect the widening of an 18-mi. stretch of I-26 between the Brevard Road interchange in Buncombe County and Four Seasons Boulevard in Henderson County. Construction on that project began in September 2019 and is still slated for completion in late April 2024.
The I-26 Connector
Plans for the I-26 Connector date to the 1990s. The $1 billion project will be one of the largest highway constructions in western North Carolina. Spanning 7 mi., it will bridge I-26 in southwest Asheville with U.S. Highway 19/23/70 (Future I-26) in the northwest part of town. In addition, the Connector will upgrade and widen I-240 from I-40 to Patton Avenue, and then cross the French Broad River as a new freeway to U.S. 19/23/70, slightly south of the Broadway interchange.
The project is designed to reduce traffic congestion, increase commerce, provide an improved gateway into the Asheville and include bicycle and pedestrian facilities. The NCDOT has broken the project down into sections A, C and a combined section BD.
Gibbs said the "bad news" of the proposed schedule revisions are tied to section C — which encompasses the I-26/I-40 interchange — where construction is facing "a pretty significant delay of four to five years."
"Most people probably see this as I do [that] that's the area where you have the most congestion and the most problems," he said. "I understand that because I [live south of Asheville and] drive through there twice a day."
He said NCDOT will incorporate some of the worst, most congested areas into the section A work, so portions will move forward sooner. But overall, the project's completion will be pushed back.
Design on the project is now set to begin in 2025. Construction will begin in "2030/future years", according the new NCDOT schedule.
For the other parts of the I-26 Connector, Gibbs said all that has changed is the "delivery method," or the process of designing and constructing the projects. Section A and the combined sections BD "generally have the same schedule going forward," he explained.
There is no estimated completion date for these two sections, but Gibbs said he hopes to see construction start "as early as late 2023, but more likely the year 2024."