I-26 construction charges forward


Jonah Levy

The Blue Ridge Parkway overpass over I-26.

Jonah Levy, [email protected], Contributor

After years of work, the I-26 renovation project, originally scheduled to finish in mid-2024, is now slated for early 2025.

“The Buncombe County section is 57% complete and the Henderson County section is 60% complete,” said David Uchiyama, North Carolina Department of Transportation  communications officer for districts 13 and 14.

After finding the current I-26 highway lane count unfit for future use, the NCDOT decided in 2013 to construct renovations to greatly improve the once crowded and dilapidated interstate. Construction began in 2018.

The Henderson County part of the highway will receive a widening of three lanes on each side while the Buncombe County portion will have four lanes on each side once the project is completed, officials say.

“There’s been an obvious need to improve the I-26 infrastructure by increasing capacity along I-26 for decades,” Uchiyama said.

The NCDOT conducted environmental impact reports and determined that a hybrid six to eight lane widening was best.

The bridge over the French Broad River will be widened and construction has already begun on this part of the project. The Blue Ridge Parkway overpass will also be rebuilt.

“In Buncombe County, crews started working on the I-26 bridge over the French Broad River in early portions of the project, but the timing of replacing the Blue Ridge Parkway Bridge is more in the middle of the overall timeline,” Uchiyama said.

Shanna Chambers, vice president of human resources at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, lives in Hendersonville and uses I-26 frequently.

“Driving to work or teleworking, was a decision every morning, do I leave an hour early or risk it and possibly be late – it was starting off your day with an extra level of stress,” Chambers said. “For circumstances when I had to be on campus, I’m forced to take an alternative route.”

While construction is necessary, people should pay more attention to the road and avoid distractions of any kind while driving.

“It’s a safety issue too. There are times when I’m on the interstate and I’m terrified because it’s narrow, and there’s big trucks,” Chambers said.

According to the Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, in the areas around I-26, total work zone vehicle fatalities are down. Fatalities involving a rear-end collision are down 4% and fatalities involving a commercial motor vehicle are down 6% from 2019 to 2020. Fatalities where speeding was a factor was up 5%, even during the year of COVID in 2020.

“I wish they could plan  a little bit better so the road doesn’t feel so compressed, especially since there’s so many tractor trailers and people from out of state who don’t know how to navigate the space,” Chambers said. “I also feel like sometimes they’re doing work on the roads at heavy traffic times.”

For the past few years, while construction progresses, road closures and detours are frequently implemented all over I-26. In most cases, these closures happen overnight, so most people aren’t affected according to the NCDOT.

“There is no need to avoid traveling on I-26,” Uchiyama said. “It’s important drivers plan ahead by getting current traffic information on the DriveNC government website, remain alert, avoid distractions, travel at a safe speed and obey all posted signs when driving through the construction zone.”

A beautification project will be added to improve the look of the highway and will feature Henderson County School student artwork on certain bridges. The affected bridges include Butler Bridge Road bridge, U.S. 25 Business bridge, Airport Road bridge, Four Seasons Boulevard bridge, Naples Road bridge, Clear Creek Road bridge, Camp Road bridge and the Fanning Bridge Road bridge.

Adrienne Kort, a local florist who owns Blossoms Creative, used to operate her business out of Biltmore Park, right off of I-26.

“It really affected our capacity to be able to deliver on time efficiently,” Kort said. “When we would send things out for delivery, we’d have to plan how long it was going to take for us to get down I-26.”

Meanwhile, before the work could start in 2018, certain aspects of the project needed a redesign.

In October 2016, a public comment period showed the public wanted the U.S. 25 interchange to have improvements that would affect many businesses and homes. The NCDOT chose a diverging diamond interchange to reduce the number of affected buildings to zero and the number of parcels of property from 41 to 11. The main design is mostly finished, but the highway underneath the interchange still requires construction.

The U.S. 64 interchange also changed to a design called partial cloverleaf B. According to the NCDOT, this type of interchange enables cars to flow freely without stopping at any point while merging or exiting.

The NCDOT has specific guidelines for determining a road construction project’s length of completion time. According to the NCDOT contract committee guidelines for determining contract time, certain factors must be determined before the project gets underway such as weather conditions, size of project, availability of materials, degree of urgency, and managing traffic congestion to give an accurate estimate.

Although locals and business owners currently feel the full effects of the construction project, progress surges forward.

“When I see the widening that has been completed at Brevard Road, I’m starting to be optimistic,” Kort said.