ASHEVILLE — The North Carolina Department of Transportation chose the “least environmentally impactful” option for a new interchange on I-26 between Brevard and Long Shoals roads, according to Mark Gibbs, division engineer for the Asheville DOT office.
The project, estimated at $32 million, is also “fast-tracked,” according to Gibbs, who spoke at the Council of Independent Business Owners’ virtual meeting Feb. 18 with North Carolina Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette.
Continued:Answer Man: Sweeten Creek, Widening Mills Gap? I-26 connector update? Fix Jones Park?
“This interchange is on schedule and currently under design, with plans to begin construction by next spring (2023),” Gibbs said. “So we kind of accelerated that.”
The DOT had considered three options for the new interchange, which will provide “east-west connectivity” to Brevard Road and Blue Ridge Parkway, but will also serve the new $650 million Pratt & Whitney aero-engine parts plant in construction in this area, Gibbs mentioned.
It will connect to a road and bridge over the French Broad River that are currently under construction by Biltmore Farms Co. The company said it will turn them over to DOT when complete.
$32.5 million in funding already secured
Gibbs said the exchange project received $30 million in funding from the North Carolina Department of Commerce and $2.5 million from the Appalachian Regional Council. The North Carolina General Assembly has included these funds in the current biennial budget.
The DOT is also seeking funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Continued:I-26 Connector Among Highway Projects Facing Delays in NCDOT Schedule Review
The project is currently in the design phase. The interchange will be called exit 35.
The DOT previously described “Interchange Concept 3” as “a left-hand exit/entrance ramp and traditional diamond pattern, located at the north end of the I-26 split section.”
The new interchange will connect to the new road that will serve Pratt & Whitney, Frederick Law Olmsted Way East, which connects to Brevard Road (NC 191) near the NC Arboretum entrance and Blue Ridge Parkway.
Pratt & Whitney is building its 1.1 million square foot airfoil production plant at the “Biltmore West” site between I-26 and NC 191. It will employ 800 people with an estimated average annual salary of nearly $70 $000. It is expected to open in November, company officials said earlier this month.
Continued:New I-26 interchange for Pratt & Whitney site could cost up to $35 million, but ‘will boost connectivity’
Boyette and Gibbs also talked about DOT projects in general, with Boyette offering details on state highways and ports, and Gibbs giving information on projects in the mountains.
Boyette acknowledged that it was a difficult time for the DOT fiscally, with declining revenues causing delays in most major highway projects. Project costs also increased due to increased material and labor costs, coupled with decreased DOT revenue from gasoline tax.
“We have a lot of demands on our infrastructure, and we have demands that exceed our revenues,” Boyette said.
Gibbs noted that in the spring and summer of 2021, DOT updated all of its State Transportation Improvement Plan project estimates for all projects over two years old. This totaled more than 1,000 estimates for 450 projects statewide.
Gibbs summed it up like this: “For the most part, many of our projects will be delayed.”
Currently, no funding is available for new projects, Gibbs said.
In the mountains, the total estimated cost increase for all projects is $906 million, Gibbs said. In Division 13, which includes Buncombe and six other counties, project cost estimates increased to $291 million.
“These are not actual costs, these are cost increases,” Gibbs said.
I-26 Connector, Sweeten Creek Road Widening Updates
Gibbs also updated on a few large local projects, including the I-26 Connector Project that will connect I-26 north of Asheville more directly to I-26 south of the city. It’s divided into four sections, called A, B, C and D, and the total cost is about $1.2 billion, Gibbs said.
“The most expensive part is Section B, which is right here around the Jeff Bowen Bridge in Asheville,” Gibbs said. “Right now the timeline is that it starts next fall, fall 2023. We hope to stay on schedule.”
The cost estimate for Section B, which includes a new bridge over the French Broad River, is up to date at $832 million, Gibbs said, noting that costs “continue to rise overall” in due to inflation and material costs.
Section A of the project, which extends from the I-40/I-26/I-240 interchange to the Haywood Road exit, is scheduled to begin construction in the spring of 2023.
“We have a section, Section A, which is actually replacing some of the concrete between the I-26/I-40 interchange and the Smoky Park Highway interchange there,” Gibbs told CIBO. “This concrete section, as many of you know, is failing due to some previous work that has been done, so we’ve incorporated it into section A, and it’s actually planned to be leased to the next spring.”
The upshot of the long-running Connector project is, “We’re really getting closer,” Gibbs said.
“For years I know this project has been discussed, and probably for 25 to 30 years it’s been on the books,” Gibbs said. “Hopefully we’re at a point here in a year or two where we’re really going to start to see some movement and we’ll get this project off the ground.”
Gibbs said improvements to Future I-26/US 19/23 north of Asheville, also part of the Connector project, will total $325 million. Acquisition of the right-of-way will begin in fiscal year 2026, construction in fiscal year 2030.
Gibbs also gave an update on the long-running Sweeten Creek Road widening saga, which has been repeatedly delayed. The total cost of the project is $195 million, and acquisition of the right-of-way will begin in fiscal year 2024, construction in fiscal year 2027, he said.
Discussion of “road diet” on Merrimon
A CIBO member asked Gibbs about local discussions regarding proposed “road schemes”, particularly the one being discussed on Merrimon Avenue, a north-south corridor through North Asheville.
Gibbs said “there’s misinformation out there,” and he encouraged residents to come to an upcoming meeting the city and DOT will be hosting about the proposal from 5-8 p.m. Feb. 28 at the North Asheville Community. Center, 37 E. Larchmont Road, off Merrimon Avenue.
DOT plans to resurface 2.3 miles of Merrimon Avenue from I-240 to Midland Road in Beaver Lake. The change in “road regime” revolves around a proposal to reduce the four-lane road to three lanes from WT Weaver Boulevard to Midland Road.
This idea includes the roadway having two vehicle lanes, a center turn lane, and 5-foot-wide bike lanes on each side.
“That decision hasn’t been made,” Gibbs said. “I’m going to make it public. This is a public hearing to get public comment. I think there are a lot of people who think this decision has been made.”
The DOT received a request from the city of Asheville to review the proposal, he said.
“We actually asked our congestion managers to determine if the facility will work from a congestion perspective,” Gibbs said. “Because obviously we’re concerned not only with getting pedestrians and cyclists out of the way and making the facility safer for them, but also for vehicles, and making sure the community as a whole is served.”
It’s about finding the “sweet spot” for the community, Gibbs said.
“It’s hard work for us in transportation sometimes because you’re never going to make everyone happy,” Gibbs said. “We know it.”
Boyette answers questions about port growth and gas tax cuts
Boyette noted that when it comes to state roads to maintain, North Carolina ranks second in the nation, with more than 81,000 miles of roads. We’re right behind Texas, he said.
The secretary also noted that North Carolina has two deep-water terminal ports on the coast serving the Carolinas, in Wilmington and Morehead City, as well as an inland terminal in Charlotte. These ports transport more than 4 million tons of goods per year and handle 1,000 ship calls.
Other port facts:
• Annual revenues total $60 million, with profit of $3 million. They directly employ 220 people.
• Ports support 87,700 jobs, $687.2 million in tax revenue and $15.4 billion in economic output, based on 2018 figures, Boyette said.
All ports are reaching or exceeding their capacity, he said.
A CIBO member asked about declining gas tax revenues as more electric vehicles take to North Carolina’s roads. Boyette said it’s a key topic among highway officials and politicians right now, and “it’s going to be a partnership between everyone” to ensure steady revenue for road works and new construction.
He quoted State Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond County, who recently noted of falling incomes, “Everybody’s going to have to get a haircut, but nobody’s going to get a scalp.”
“We have to find a way to increase our revenue, because the gas tax has been our mainstay in the entire history of our agency,” Boyette said.
Boyette noted that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, people simply stopped driving and gas tax revenues, which would normally be $180-190 million per month, fell. at $85-90 million.
DOT officials have had “great conversations” with politicians and state officials, who realize action will be needed, he said. It is about agreeing on the measures to be taken.
“I think we’ve advanced this possibility enough, and now they see we need to take action,” Boyette said, referring to politicians and state officials.
“I’ve been in transportation for over 25, about 30 years, and now I think everyone sees it’s time to act,” Boyette said. “It’s just that everyone has to agree on what this action is.”