The road more traveled

Asheville City Council March 29, 2011 meeting

  • Residents call for more sidewalks
  • Lack of population growth impacts city’s budget

Even though Asheville City Council members occupied a lofty position for their March 29 community meeting — onstage in the T.C. Roberson High School theater — the gathering had a downright intimate feel. About 15 residents showed up, most of them well-versed in city issues, and due to the meager turnout, Mayor Terry Bellamy took questions from the floor.

The nuts and bolts of city infrastructure dominated the session. Residents asked about sidewalks and widening Sweeten Creek Road — improvements they say are needed to support local businesses and make the area safer.

“There are lots of businesses here people need to get to,” one woman noted. “Students shouldn't have to get off the bus onto the grass.”

Council member Bill Russell, whose State Farm Insurance office is in the area, said he’s seen more foot traffic since sidewalks were installed during the past year. Infrastructure, he noted, remains a pressing issue for the city as a whole.

“The first thing we look at is connecting these sidewalks that go to nowhere. There's lots of them: You're right. I'm someone who doesn't like to spend money, but we can borrow money at a very competitive rate right now: We have an incredible bond rating,” said Russell. “The amount of money we put into bricks and mortar and roads and sidewalks, compared to other municipalities of our size, is pretty dismal. You may hear about bond referendums over the next year or two years, talking about big numbers — $50 million or $100 million — to make major capital investments.”

Other Council members agreed. Calling sidewalks along Hendersonville Road “a top priority,” Vice Mayor Brownie Newman cautioned, “Transportation is one of these arenas where there are all these wants and needs — and simply not enough dollars to do them all.”

Bellamy pointed out that many roads are maintained and controlled by the state Department of Transportation, meaning improvements are out of the city's hands. She encouraged audience members to also express their concerns to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners (which, like City Council, is represented on the local transportation-planning body), and to voice support for the long-delayed Interstate 26 connector and the widening of Sweeten Creek Road.

Plagued by controversy for years, the I-26 connector was recently put on hold indefinitely, the DOT announced.

There is a “ray of hope,” however, noted Council member Jan Davis. In response to that announcement, he explained, local officials huddled with the state agency and divided the project into three separate segments, which would enable it to be done in stages. As a result, it has moved up from 21st to 12th on the state's priority list.

“There's still no money there, but there is some hope; there is movement there,” said Davis.

Council member Cecil Bothwell dissented, however, saying he believes building an eight-lane connector is a bad idea.

“Every time they've done a study, it shows less traffic going through there,” said Bothwell. “The difference between an eight-lane and a six-lane is tremendous. I'm optimistic that this delay and money problems will leave Asheville better off in the future, as we won't have a big, major highway running through our city.”

Earlier, Transportation Director Ken Putnam pointed out that the city has built or extended sidewalks on Hendersonville Road, Springside Road, Long Shoals Road and Linden Street in recent years, and that more sidewalks are planned for the area, particularly near the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Asheville has 165 miles of sidewalks, reported Putnam, and in 2005, the city determined that an additional 108 miles were needed to connect the existing segments. But sidewalks are expensive, he said, and in tight budget times, finding the money can be difficult.

And despite their concerns, the residents were cordial, repeatedly praising city staff. Tom Rightmyer called Asheville “the most open, most responsive community I've ever lived in.”

Body count

As is standard practice at community meetings, city staff gave a presentation on the city's overall budget situation.

Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley emphasized that between 1990 and 2000, Asheville had the slowest growth among the state's 17 cities with more than 50,000 people. During the same period, Buncombe County’s population has grown dramatically.

The city also has the biggest discrepancy between its daytime and nighttime populations of any municipality in the state, with approximately 40,000 people commuting into Asheville to work. And unlike many other communities with a large tourist and commuter population, Asheville lacks special occupancy or food-and-beverage taxes to bring in extra revenue. That's forced the city to rely on grants and partnerships to fund improvements, which has contributed to the current budget crunch.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Asheville spent $916 per resident on services (including everything from trash pickup to police to mass transit), according to staff reports. Currently, that figure stands at $875. Meanwhile, added Bradley, Asheville also has the most emergency-service calls per capita of any city in the state. In order to bring those numbers down to more typical levels, said Bradley, the city's population would need to grow by 51,000 people from its 2000 level. And though the 2010 census data hasn’t yet been fully assimilated, the newer numbers show that Asheville did add 14,000 of those people over the last decade.

Noting that “There's no silver bullet” for the city's underlying situation, Newman said staff and Council members remain committed to doing what they can to address the community's needs.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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