ASHEVILLE, N.C.— In 1985, Doc Brown famously told Marty McFly: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” Well, that proclamation about the state of infrastructure in a hypothetical 2015 turned out to be as fictitious as the Back to the Future character who voiced it.
Roads are still very much with us and, to hear most Buncombe County residents tell it, we need more rather than fewer to manage the traffic generated by a growing population.
Census data for Buncombe County show the population grew by 17,736 people, or by 7 percent, from 2010 to 2016. Nearly all of those new residents moved here from elsewhere, bringing with them a full complement of housing, employment and shopping needs — and the vehicle traffic that comes with them.
As residents struggle with lengthening commutes and worry about the safety implications of increased traffic volumes on once-quiet side streets, figuring out where to turn for help can be time-consuming and frustrating. While the North Carolina Department of Transportation controls 70 percent of Buncombe County’s roads, six municipalities also play a role in solving the traffic puzzle.
As new housing developments continue to proliferate throughout the county, increased traffic has some residents experiencing road rage and speaking out about infrastructure they see as overburdened. At Buncombe County Board of Adjustment meetings, for example, frustration about potential congestion often emerges when new projects come up for consideration. Residents frequently pack the forums, begging for relief in the form of roadway improvements.
Several sizable apartment projects were among those approved this year by the Board of Adjustment, including complexes of 472 units on Long Shoals Road, 255 units off Brevard Road, 214 units off Charlotte Highway and 232 units in the Chunns Cove area. The public hearings for each of those projects featured residents asking for help managing the traffic impact of the new units.
But board members generally tell citizens the fix is out of their hands.
Roads that lie within Buncombe County’s borders but outside of its six municipalities — Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Montreat, Weaverville and Woodfin — are the responsibility of NCDOT Division 13. The agency also takes care of roads in Burke, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford and Yancey counties.
To get a driveway permit, new development along county roadways must meet NCDOT criteria. Mark Gibbs, Division 13’s maintenance engineer, says his office monitors new construction. “When a commercial, residential or industrial development is proposed, the [NCDOT] evaluates the impact on traffic and the need for road improvements at the access point and requires improvements as appropriate,” he explains.
Development projects likely to generate more than 3,000 vehicle trips per day must also undergo a traffic study, Gibbs explains. According to the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ website, a traffic study involves collecting and analyzing data to address a transportation problem or potential problem.
Project sizes that automatically trigger an NCDOT-required traffic study include: a subdivision with 300 or more single-family homes; 300-unit apartment complex; 350-room hotel; 55,000 square feet of retail space; 250,000-square-foot office building; or 400,000-square-foot industrial area. Depending on the results of the studies, Gibbs says, the NCDOT might require traffic mitigation efforts, which can include “left and right turn lane requirements, signalization and other possible improvements for very large developments.”
The NCDOT can’t require a traffic study on a road maintained by a municipality. The county’s six municipalities have varying standards for conducting a traffic study. (See inforgraph below, “Traffic-study triggers”)
After simmering discontent with traffic congestion in South Asheville reached the boiling point last year in the face of a proposed 272-unit apartment complex at Sweeten Creek and Mills Gap roads, community members asked the NCDOT to expedite plans for widening Sweeten Creek. Residents hoped to ease the gridlock they now experience during peak morning and afternoon travel times before the new complex generates even more traffic. But the answer was no.
“Projects such as Sweeten Creek Road are prioritized and funded as required by state law. This is a data-driven approach based upon factors such as safety, congestion, benefit, cost, etc., while allowing for local input,” says Ricky Tipton, Division 13’s construction engineer. “Since we use a data-driven approach to prioritize projects, we cannot just change the schedule.”
The NCDOT’s approach doesn’t make predictions about where traffic issues are likely to develop, Tipton explains. “This approach is geared more toward solving current deficiencies than trying to predict where problems may arise in the future,” he says. “Given our predicted needs, it is not likely that we will be able to invest in transportation based solely on predicted growth unless there is an existing deficiency.”
A calming effect
Frustrated commuters fed up with congestion often search for alternate routes to hasten the drive. But shortcuts aimed at shaving time off a commute can increase traffic volume and speeding on residential side streets that were never designed for heavy use. Often people living on such once-placid roads request traffic-calming measures.
The effectiveness of those measures varies, and the results can cause consternation. “I recently had a speed bump installed in our neighborhood. … It was left unpainted with no warning signs for two weeks. Many people’s cars suffered minor damage. I contacted [the county and city], but never got through to anyone about it,” says Woodfin resident Joseph Crowe. He’s also skeptical of some of the town’s other efforts, noting, “There are plenty of signs saying ‘Drive slow, children at play’ but no one thinks twice about them.”
Jason Young, administrator for the town of Woodfin, says traffic calming is an evolving process. “The town has, in the past, pursued avenues for traffic calming by installing signs and enforcing speed limits on public roads. And by encouraging, where appropriate, on-street parking as a cost-effective means of traffic calming. Recently, the town has adopted flashing warning signs at certain specific spots and has initiated a pilot project with speed bumps,” he says, adding that the town plans to study the effectiveness of the newer initiatives.
Meantime, Biltmore Forest Town Manager Jonathan Kanipe says he considers speed bumps installed on three roads a success. A crosswalk on Stuyvesant Road near the Biltmore Forest Country Club has also proven effective at reducing speeds. “This crosswalk slows traffic considerably and allows safe passage of pedestrians, golf carts and others who are using this section of the road.”
However, not everyone sees installing traffic-calming measures as a best practice. Weaverville Public Works Director Tony Laughter says he believes the measures create unintended consequences. “Several locations nationwide have discovered these calming options briefly slow not only traffic but consume [emergency] responders’ precious seconds in a life-and-death emergency. I do not speak for the area emergency personnel. After being asked to consider the cost and installation of such devices, I did my own research and reached my own conclusion,” he explains.
And, Laughter says, many calming measures seem to encourage short-distance bursts of speed. “I have personally witnessed a drag-race-type acceleration between the calming devices to make up the time lost going over the obstacle — many times exceeding the speed they would have normally traveled in the absence of such device.” (See infograph below, “Traffic calming” for more information on traffic-calming measures from the NCDOT and the county’s six municipalities)
Slow your roll
Where congestion isn’t an issue, speeding often is. Many county residents see their roads menaced by tardy commuters angling to make up for lost minutes. Signs urging drivers to “Slow down, Asheville” and “Drive like your kids play here” testify to the need for speed and the difficulties facing those who hope to control it.
All speed limits in Buncombe County are set by the NCDOT. Gibbs explains that the statutory speed limit for rural areas is 55 mph, while the limit in incorporated municipalities is 35 mph. “Non-statutory speed limits are determined by traffic engineering studies, which include a field review of the development and characteristics of the road, a traffic count to verify the amount of traffic traveling on the road, a speed study to determine the prevailing vehicle speeds and a crash study,” Gibbs says.
While Buncombe County is not responsible for road construction and maintenance, the Sheriff’s Department does spend some time enforcing speed limits. “The Sheriff’s Office typically conducts speeding campaigns as part of our Community Oriented Problem Solving (COPS) teams, particularly if the community which the team is assigned has listed speeding as an issue,” says Natalie Bailey, spokesperson for the department. However, questions about how citizens can request such speeding enforcement campaigns went unanswered. The Sheriff’s Department also partners with the Asheville Police Department on the DWI Task Force.
The N.C. Highway Patrol rolls out numerous safety campaigns throughout the year, with speeding a component of all of them. “Speeding is among the many violations we focus on to reduce collisions, as excessive speed is the leading cause of traffic fatalities statewide,” says Sgt. Michael Baker, spokesperson for the N.C. Highway Patrol. Beyond statewide campaigns, he says, local leadership may choose to emphasize specific priorities such as speed enforcement.
Baker adds that if you live or drive in an area that could benefit from speed enforcement, you can contact the N.C. Highway Patrol to request such an effort. (See infograph below, “Speeding Enforcement” for more on enforcement and awareness campaigns)
Gwen Wisler, Asheville’s vice mayor, is an appointed member of the board of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, which helps coordinate transportation planning among local and state government and federal agencies. According to its website, the FBRMPO includes representatives from Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties, as well as a number of municipalities in those counties. The board also serves as a forum for public input.
Wisler notes that elected officials are aware of public concerns over traffic hot spots. “Working on the MPO, you start to get familiar with how the NCDOT works. Thinking about traffic, understanding a little more about how they go about prioritizing projects,” she says. “I don’t know that they are proactive, in the sense that they are trying to predict where development is going to be in the future and therefore build out infrastructure. I think they kind of wait until the development is there, and then the neighborhoods think it’s too late.”
However, she urges those advocating for traffic mitigation efforts to fight on. “Don’t give up on the NCDOT. They are getting better and better at listening. … Do they always do something about it? Not necessarily. But what I would encourage the readers to do is weigh in,” she advises. “Go to these public meetings. They do listen and they are required to listen.”