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The stages and supporters could not have been more different: A Sept. 25 power lunch at Magnolias Raw Bar & Grille, sponsored by the conservative Council of Independent Business Owners, and an evening forum at the Odyssey Gallery, hosted by the multimodal-minded group Asheville On Bikes. The latter event was also attended by City Council candidates (see “Getting Things Rolling” elsewhere in this issue).

Before the three mayoral candidates   current Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, former city Risk Manager John Miall and community activist Martin Ramsey  began talking transit at the River Arts District gallery, they sipped beers with voters outside the neighboring Clingman Café.

Earlier that day, both Manheimer and Miall had handed out buttons and stickers urging people to vote for them before getting down to business at Magnolias. Ramsey did not attend the CIBO event due to a scheduling conflict. A piece of paper with Ramsey's name typed on it rested on an empty chair a few feet away from where Manheimer and Miall faced each other one-on-one for the first time in a public forum.

Both said that fiscal and financial stability would be top priorities if they were elected mayor, and both voiced support for the long-delayed Interstate 26 connector project, even if it means means making Interstate 240 eight lanes through West Asheville. Some options for the multimillion-dollar undertaking include an eight-lane I-240   a controversial issue since the project was first proposed many years ago.

Miall, a West Asheville native who still lives there, told the more than 50 CIBO attendees, “Eight or 800 [lanes], we need relief. It's that simple.” He continued, “I don't think it's a question of how many lanes; I think it's a question of how committed are we” to completing the project.

Manheimer, meanwhile, told the CIBO crowd that she will “of course” support the connector.

“I'm not sure if the recommendation is going to include six lanes or eight. … But whatever the recommendation is, I'm going to support it, because that's what it's going to take,” she assured them. “We need the I-26 project: That is not a question. We have been stymied in moving that forward.”

Asked whether they would consider a new study to assess the effectiveness of traffic-calming measures along Kimberly, Macon and Murdock avenues (specifically the bulb-outs and traffic islands), Manheimer said that though there have been “some hiccups in people learning to drive around them and not over them, the community has absorbed them.”

Miall, however, took a more critical stance. “I'll go you one better than that: I would advocate that we get as much of the concrete globs out of the streets as we possibly can,” he said. “The purpose of a paved road is to express traffic. Anything else we do to inhibit that creates a problem.”

At the Get There AVL forum that evening, which drew a comparable crowd, the moderator asked Miall to clarify his “eight or 800” statement, as well as his stance on traffic-calming measures, multimodal issues and complete streets (roads designed with walkers, cyclists, drivers and public transit users in mind).

“I don't think there's as much conflict as there probably appears on the surface,” responded Miall.

The transit forum featured an unusually playful, Jeopardy-style format rather than a straightforward moderated debate. There were also questions specifically tailored to each candidate, based on a questionnaire they’d been asked to complete beforehand. In addition, they could respond to their opponents’ comments via pantomimed hat-tipping (indicating support) or hand-waving (signaling an objection).

For Ramsey, the only one who hadn’t completed the questionnaire, that meant giving his stance on multimodal issues on the spot. The 31-year-old bicyclist said he was glad to hear consensus among the candidates on the need for multimodal transportation options in Asheville. But he stressed that any decisions made should reflect “social equity.”

In other words, he wants to make sure that “non-elective bus riders’ voices are heard in this conversation: people who don't just decide whether they ride a bike or take the bus when the weather is good.”

And Manheimer, citing New Belgium Brewing as an example, said that being a good businessperson doesn’t mean you can’t also be an advocate for multimodal transportation.

“When I spent time today at the CIBO forum answering questions,” said Manheimer, she realized “There's a whole different population that still thinks differently about the concepts that this group is trying to further. We need to engage that community, have a dialogue, so we have a common understanding that we're not trying to defeat each other's purposes.”

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cbyrd@mountainx.com.

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