Council Commits $7m Towards I-26 Aesthetics - TribPapers

Council Commits $7m Towards I-26 Aesthetics

Rendering of the protected bike lanes proposed for the Bowen Bridge. Screenshot from presentation slides.

Asheville – Ted Figura, who represents the I-26 Connector Project Aesthetics Committee, which he chairs, urged members of the Asheville City Council to fund all their recommendations that would not be funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT). “I hope you will see the wisdom,” he implored. Figura said this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and, of course, the timing was such that this was council’s last chance. As was pointed out later, the city was only being asked to fund less than one percent of the $1.3 billion the DOT intends to spend improving I-26 between Haywood Road and Woodfin.

Asheville never got the eight lanes the DOT was poised to build twenty-some years ago. Instead, the city is going to get multimodal infrastructure and architectural styling. The designs promise functionality for anybody trying to travel between downtown and West Asheville without a car. For years, anybody attempting the trip has had to bushwack, hop out onto the interstate for pieces, come upon fences and locked gates, get stopped by the cops for suspected drug dealing, and traipse through bridges covered ankle-deep in emetics.

Cyclists still catch a lot of heat for being few and far between but very vocal in their driving policies. Drivers get agitated when cyclists hold up traffic, and cyclists get hit by cars. Upon completion, the new I-26 will have protected bicycle and pedestrian lanes spanning the Bowen Bridge. With viable infrastructure, more people will have the courage to clear off the congested highways and commute or run errands by bike, which will work to everybody’s benefit.

The need for better lighting is only refuted by professional and amateur astronomers, but in some cases, “better lighting” translates into situating the “bulbs” on elegant poles with a six-digit price tag. More controversial, though, are the monuments, medallions, and surface treatments.

Citizens are spending hundreds of dollars a week on groceries. They’re frightened by the prospect of runaway inflation. They can’t afford to live in the city. Some are demanding reparations for insurmountable injustices. And the city wants to spend millions of dollars to erect monuments made of stamped concrete. These monuments, by the way, aren’t commemorating anything. They’re just supposed to give the city an identity. One can only imagine what a parent might say to a child who says, “Mom!” I’ve got to have these expensive concrete pillars to give me an identity! “And they need to look like bricks!”

Then there are the medallions. These are large, presumably metal logos that will adorn the bridges, again in the name of identity. Evidently, nobody has run a study to gauge the psychological impact of these medallions on the child of color entering kindergarten unprepared, the aspiring graffitist, or the shell-shocked person who’s been living on the streets since COVID ripped his once successful business out from under him.

For a mere $7,301,924, the city could have all of the above. Aesthetic improvements accounted for $5,889,024; bike and pedestrian lanes made up the rest. What was more, by entering into the contract immediately, the city would enjoy fixed-rate payments no matter how out-of-control inflation would spin.

Tempering the urge to splurge, the city’s transportation department director, Ken Putnam, proposed only partial funding, explaining that the city had finite resources and had to prioritize. Presenting the recommendations from his department, he recommended funding only eight of eleven priorities. They preferred to accept the Bowen Bridge improvements without the monuments and stamped concrete and reduce the expense from $3.8 million to $2.9 million. They also recommended doing away with the stamped and colored concrete for the Haywood Bridge and interchange, dropping the price from $617,020 to $499,554. They also opted not to spend another $817,980 on the Haywood Bridge and interchange and $71,929 on Riverside Drive.

That still left the city on the hook for $3,987,595 in aesthetic upgrades and another $1,412,900 for bicycle and pedestrian features. Since the city didn’t have the funds, Putnam indicated it was believed Buncombe County, the Tourism Development Authority (TDA), and the Metropolitan Planning Organization would be willing “partners.” Mayor Esther Manheimer said the TDA was already very interested in paying for aesthetic elements like the medallions.

Members of the city council acted as if they were slow to understand that the partnerships would be needed even to cobble together enough for the staff’s reduced spending plan. They were of the belief that the partners would help the city fund all of the committee’s aspirations. Councilwoman Maggie Ullman, for example, did not want to forfeit the textured concrete, even though nobody had yet determined what design would be stamped. She spoke about how the subtlest nuances in design can break up dull concrete and foster a people-centered sense of place.
All who spoke during public comment supported the project. Mike Sule, executive director of Asheville on Bikes (AoB), wanted the plan to include protected bike lanes on Riverside Drive. Currently, the plan only prescribes striping along the highway. AoB’s mission is aligned with traditional ideas about transportation infrastructure and improving circulation to facilitate moving people and goods from place to place.

Another avid cyclist, former Asheville City Councilman Marc Hunt, reviewed the history of the project. The two others who spoke were members of the aesthetics committee.

Councilwoman Kim Roney wanted to make sure that design elements left to the discretion of historically underprivileged neighborhoods would be funded. Ullman balked at that because she didn’t want to essentially sign a blank check, and so she was the only person to vote against a second motion made by Roney. Councilwoman Sheneika Smith continues to be absent from these meetings.