Major NC Highway Improvements on Hold Pending Environmental Review

Mon June 16, 2003 - Southeast Edition
Gwenyth Laird Pernie

Major construction and improvement projects along Interstate 26 in North Carolina have been under way since 1996. The first construction and improvements occurred in Madison County, NC, stretching 14 mi. (22.5 km) between North Asheville and Sams Gap at the Tennessee border. Much of this area is currently U.S. 23; upon completion it will become part of I-26. The total cost for this portion of the interstate was approximately $180 million.

Currently, there are plans to widen, from four to six lanes, a 14-mi. (22.5 km) stretch of I-26 from U.S. connector 25, in Henderson County, to just past the Asheville Regional Airport, near exit 9.

“The primary purpose for this project is to ease the existing and future congestion and insure safety,” stated Bill Jones, spokesman of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

According to Jones, the estimated cost for the 14 mi. (22.5 km) along I-26, in Henderson County, is $75 million to $80 million. Eighty percent will be federally funded, while the remaining 20 percent will come from the state.

This project however has been on hold since October 2002, pending a decision from a Federal District Court judge as to whether the Federal Highway Administration and the NCDOT complied with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

In January of 2003, the Western North Carolina Alliance (Asheville), Smart Growth Partners (Asheville), North Carolina Alliance for Transportation Reform (Raleigh), and Citizens for Transportation Planning (Hendersonville) filed suits against the NCDOT, and the Federal Highway Administration, challenging the environmental documents prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, for the I-26 expansion in Henderson County. Consequently, a preliminary injunction was issued by U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle temporarily halting the project.

According to Eva Ritchey, president of the Citizens for Transportation Planning, the key areas of concern are that the NCDOT proceeded with the Henderson County I-26 project without considering or analyzing the impacts of the other planned expansions of I-26 through Asheville and the rest of Buncombe County.

“The vastly expanded highway and the traffic it will carry will worsen the regions already unacceptable ozone and particulate pollution,” Ritchey emphasized. “During the summer months we now have only one healthy air day out of every four. Tailpipe emissions account for 49 percent of nitrous oxides and 40 percent of volatile organic compounds, the two building blocks of ozone pollution.”

Other complaints of the environmental groups are that the NCDOT justified the project on safety concerns by telling the public that there was a high accident rate, a fact the plaintiffs say isn’t true. And finally, there are concerns that a bottleneck will occur at the northern section of the project at the I-26/40/240 interchange where the lanes will narrow from six to four lanes as the highway enters Buncombe County from Henderson County.

According to Ann Steedly, manager of the Public Involvement and Community Studies Unit of the NCDOT, improvement and construction plans at the I-26/40/240 interchange along I-26 in Buncombe County are being studied.

“Timing of highway construction and improvements has to do with funding availability,” stated Steedly. “Money for highway constructions and improvements are allocated according to the state divisions the roads are located in. Equity formulas in the NCDOT are used to insure all 14 divisions in the state are treated equally in the dispersion of money. Currently, there is money in division 14, which includes Henderson County, for highway improvements, however there is not money in division 13, which includes Buncombe County.”

In response to the availability of funds Ritchey noted, “The I-26 Henderson County project was driven primarily by the political imperative to spend the available money as quickly as possible, without consideration of other planned expansions on I-26.”

On March 27, 2003, U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle heard arguments from lawyers for the NCDOT and Federal Highway Administration and from the representatives for the environmental groups. The judge said he would consider the evidence and then make a ruling as to whether a more detailed environmental review is needed in order to proceed with the widening of I-26 in Henderson County, but he did not say when he would make an announcement.

According to Ritchey, the 90-minute hearings went well for the environmental groups.

“I was pleased by the way the judge questioned the state and federal highway officials,” she said. “It was obvious from Judge Boyle’s remarks, concerning the roads and their consequences on human behavior and land-use planning, that these are important issues to him, and that he has an understanding of the larger picture.”

According to Len Sanderson, state highway administrator of the NCDOT, the widening of I-26 in Henderson County is planned to the inside of the current road, thus maintaining the current footprint of the road, resulting in minimal environmental impact to the area.

“We believe we have complied with and prepared the environmental documents correctly for this type of road improvements,” Sanderson said, “and a further environmental impact statement is not necessary to conform with the National Environmental Policy Act.”