“Do you think Asheville is ready for a roundabout in the middle of the city?”
— Council member Joe Dunn
The quarter-mile stretch of College Street between Spruce and Charlotte streets may be up for a face-lift. The roadway, which marks the eastern edge of downtown, is marked by a concentration of city and county buildings, pedestrian traffic and multiple lanes of cars entering and leaving the central business district.
During the Asheville City Council’s April 20 work session, Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek reported that College Street was once the “main drag” through downtown until the construction of Interstate 240 diverted most of the through traffic. Nonetheless, he noted, some 13,000 cars travel the College Street corridor every day.
The proposed redesign would slim the street down to a single lane of traffic in each direction, add bike lanes and roadside parking, and improve the crosswalks. The project, expected to cost about $100,000, is still in the planning stage and several steps away from coming before Council for a formal vote.
The present crosswalk system, noted Butzek, is “a hodgepodge” that can be confusing to both pedestrians and drivers and requires the assistance of crossing guards supplied by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department. The new crosswalks would eliminate that need.
But progress on the project could become snarled in controversy over one proposed feature: replacing a traffic light at the intersection of College, Oak and Valley streets with a single-lane roundabout.
These one-way traffic circles connecting several roads are intended to keep cars moving rather than waiting at lights. A similar structure was recently installed on W.T. Weaver Boulevard at the entrance to the UNCA campus. The UNCA roundabout carries about 1,200 cars during its peak daily hour; the College/Oak Street intersection averages about 1,400 cars during its peak hour, Butzek told Xpress.
And though roundabouts are still little-known in Asheville, Butzek predicted that installing one on College Street would decrease travel time by an average of 10-15 seconds per trip.
But Council member Joe Dunn seemed skeptical that the public would accept the idea, or indeed that it would be safe for pedestrians and drivers unused to the concept.
“Do you think Asheville is ready for a roundabout in the middle of the city?” queried Dunn.
“Yes, I do,” Butzek replied confidently. But he added, “Asheville may not be ready for a two-lane roundabout, and there certainly is a learning curve associated with it.”
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower had strong reservations as well, though they seemed more focused on public perception.
“Roundabouts are considered weapons of mass destruction by this community,” declared Mumpower, calling them “intimidating, overwhelming and new.”
But the vice mayor seemed equally concerned about the public’s opinion of any Council that approved such a move.
Citing the criticism that had followed the April 19 public-comment meeting with the two final candidates for the position of Asheville police chief (see “Hail to the Chief” elsewhere in this issue), Mumpower lamented that the city would probably catch grief for this decision as well.
“I just have a problem when Asheville gets a hard time and doesn’t deserve it,” said the vice mayor. “I can just see the cartoon now,” he continued, apparantly anticipating negative local-media coverage.
Butzek responded by noting that the city would both hold a public-information session and solicit public input before proceeding with any attempt to finalize the plan.
He also said the plan’s use of angled parking and landscaped medians is consistent with the recommendations of the Pack Square Conservancy, a quasi-governmental body charged with overseeing the redevelopment of the city’s central public space.
And though Mumpower insisted that the public would “almost certainly” rail against the idea, in the end he conceded that a roundabout has merit in light of the numbers provided by Butzek.
Dunn, however, challenged the traffic engineer’s report, dismissing the statistics in favor of his own assessment.
“Common sense would tell me it’s still going to be congested,” said Dunn about the idea of reducing four lanes to two.
He also questioned whether there is really any safety problem in the area now, saying, “I haven’t heard anything about it.” In addition, Dunn observed that, as a motorist, he’s witnessed “near fatal” accidents in connection with roundabouts, so even if Butzek’s numbers are correct, does saving 15 seconds justify the risks?
In 2002, there were eight vehicle accidents and three pedestrians hit in the designated portion of College Street, Butzek later told Xpress. No numbers were available for near-misses.
Council member Jan Davis noted that some members of the public had expressed concerns about a roundabout proposed during the redesign of Pritchard Park. That roundabout, Butzek said later, was killed because it wouldn’t fit suitably in the space available. But Davis also had other worries.
“With the ‘Too Fast/Too Furious’ craze and drifting all the rage, what are the chances that this will become a toy to be played with?” asked Davis.
Like any other city street, noted Butzek, this one would fall under the jurisdiction of the Asheville Police Department.
And Mayor Charles Worley had the last word. Because they require change, he noted, roundabouts have the potential to spark controversy. “But they work better,” added Worley.
A meeting to share the plan with the public, solicit comments and answer questions will be held sometime this summer.
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]