West Asheville residents expecting to encounter lots of orange-and-white construction barrels in their part of town when the state widens Interstate 240 in a few years may be in for a surprise: still more barrels along Amboy and Meadow roads.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has begun planning for a project intended to improve traffic flow and add facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists along the corridor that connects West Asheville and Biltmore Village. But with neighbors gearing up to oppose what they feared would be a plan to widen both roads to four lanes, a DOT engineer says the agency has already taken that option off the table.
DOT has advertised a public meeting to be held Thursday, March 28, as a chance for people to provide feedback on the idea of widening Amboy and Meadow to multiple lanes. But Steve Cannon, the Asheville-based division project development engineer for DOT, says department officials have “pretty well come to the conclusion that it’s not going to be multi-lane.”
Two, three or four?
Traffic counts on the corridor are not high enough to require a four-lane road, and there is not much room for a wider road in places, Cannon says. Furthermore, impacts to parks and other features along the corridor would be problematic, he adds.
The current leading options would keep Amboy and Meadow at two lanes, Cannon says. Questions to be decided include whether to install a landscaped median, the type of shoulder the corridor should have (curbs and gutters or paved), where turn lanes might be installed and what should be done for people on foot or a bicycle.
DOT’s long-range plan calls for spending an estimated $49.3 million to widen Amboy and Meadow and replace the Amboy Road bridge over the French Broad River, with construction to begin in 2025.
Those plans sparked worries among West Asheville residents that a stream of fast-moving traffic would separate homes and the string of parks lining the French Broad, as well as that a wider road would gobble up some parkland.
“There are a lot of neighborhoods that are within a walkable distance to Carrier Park, and those people have every incentive” to get to the park on foot, says Ted Figura, a resident of the East West Asheville neighborhood. But if Amboy Road were widened to four lanes, a walk to the park could end in disaster, he says.
“Realistically, drivers on four-lane divided highways do not expect to have to stop for pedestrian crossings,” and some inevitably wouldn’t, Figura says.
Stephen Edge, a past president of the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association, says residents had already begun contacting DOT with concerns about impacts from a three- or four-lane road.
Had DOT not shifted its thinking, “there was going to be a large hell-raising” at the March 28 meeting, he says.
Whatever plan DOT decides on could set a precedent for the transportation network along the rest of the Swannanoa River’s course through the city. DOT’s draft long-range transportation plan, to be adopted later this year, calls for $37.7 million to be spent on changes to state Highway 81 between Biltmore Village and Tunnel Road over the next seven years.
Garrett Artz, executive director of conservation nonprofit RiverLink, says what he heard during a recent conference call on the project with DOT and other officials suggested widening was a strong possibility at that time.
RiverLink helped establish the chain of parks along the French Broad in West Asheville, which are among the most popular parks in the city. “We’re concerned that maybe [DOT officials] want to do more than would be good for that series of parks,” Artz says. “My experience with NCDOT is they’re very focused on highway transportation and the time it takes to get from one place to another.”
A sampling of West Asheville residents and park users seems generally skeptical of a wider Amboy Road and, to a lesser extent, Meadow Road. Some back turning lanes and better pedestrian crossings instead.
West Asheville resident Bryan Doe says he would not endorse widening to deal with problems he says occur for only a short period each day. Traffic on Amboy “probably gets bad at about 5 p.m.,” he says, “but really it doesn’t get too bad at any other time I can think of.”
Jeff Santiago, another West Asheville resident, says “sometimes it’s a little tough” to reach Carrier Park, but a four-lane road would just encourage more people to use Amboy as an alternative to major highways. That would mean “more flow, more traffic, higher speeds” and make parks less inviting, he says.
During a recent afternoon rush hour, traffic backups developed at each end of Meadow Road, sometimes causing longer delays, sometimes not. There were few problems on Amboy.
DOT rates congestion at major intersections on Amboy and Meadow as an “F,” the lowest possible grade and one traffic engineers generally consider unacceptable. A study of the corridor done for DOT last year predicted traffic volumes would increase roughly 19-23 percent by 2040 if no changes to roads were made. The number of cars counted was in the range where traffic engineers often start considering widening two-lane roads.
But less detailed traffic counts DOT performs across the county every couple of years give little indication that a big increase in vehicles on Amboy and Meadow lies ahead. The average number of vehicles a day at some points on the corridor was the same in 2016 as in 2002 and at others had risen less than 10 percent.
‘Tell us now’
The March 28 public meeting on Amboy and Meadow comes at a relatively early stage. Beverly Robinson, a DOT engineer coordinating planning for the project, says the agency is working with city government and wants “to really engage the public and communities around the project” to identify issues and concerns early on.
Dan Baechtold, a traffic planner with city government, says the city has not yet taken a formal position but is encouraging DOT to focus on improvements to intersections and more facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists on the corridor. “It looks like two through lanes would be sufficient with possibly additional turning lanes at the intersections, but also we want to hear what the public has to say,” he notes.
A well-used paved greenway path parallels Amboy Road, but there are no sidewalks in the corridor other than a very short stretch where Meadow Road crosses over railroad tracks. In places, particularly at the eastern end of Meadow, the proximity of buildings will limit DOT’s ability to widen the road unless it tears down structures.
DOT’s draft long-range plan says construction on I-240 as part of the I-26 Connector, which will also include a new crossing of the French Broad River west of downtown and a revamped I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange, will run from 2022 through 2026. That would overlap with work on Amboy and Meadow roads.
Artz says DOT does appear to be genuinely interested in including paths for pedestrians and bicyclists along Amboy and Meadow and he hopes other changes will not harm parks.
“Parks are places of retreat and renewal, to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. To put a busy road next to [riverfront parks] would take something away,” he says.