Transportation tops agenda

The N.C. Department of Transportation has extensive plans for upgrading Buncombe County roads, Director of Engineering Jay Swain reported at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ April 22 meeting. Swain presented the DOT’s secondary-road paving program for fiscal year 2003-04.

In addition to about $1.17 million in local paving projects (two rural and five residential), the agency plans to spend about $44 million upgrading Buncombe County roads as part of a new, statewide $700 million project called NC Moving Ahead. The project aims to improve safety and mobility on North Carolina’s roads by expanding shoulders, widening existing lanes, taking steps to extend pavement life, and installing more safety features. NC Moving Ahead will target roads with high traffic counts, such as main thoroughfares serving schools, homes and businesses.

Among the Buncombe County projects planned is widening, draining, resurfacing and installing guardrails on the access road from N.C. 251 to the Buncombe County landfill entrance. Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey seemed pleased; many county residents, he said, would be happy to see that work done.

DOT District Engineer Kenny Wilson presented plans for this year’s allocation from the Highway Trust Fund. About $2 million is slated to pave certain county roads not covered by general highway funds. All projects, cautioned Wilson, are still subject to environmental review and right-of-way acquisition. The commissioners unanimously approved the DOT report.

Asheville resident Alan Ditmore commented that we, as taxpayers, are all paying for these roads even though many (including some teens, disabled people, seniors and alcoholics) cannot drive. “No roads should be improved unless there is bus service to that road,” declared Ditmore.

“Little white buses” to expand service area

Buncombe County Planner Denise Braine told the commissioners that Mountain Mobility is planning three new routes for next year, to be funded by a combination of county moneys and state grant funds. The agency’s “little white buses” serve elderly and disabled county residents, people living in rural areas, and Work First clients requiring employment-related transportation. Mountain Mobility, noted Braine, covers a much broader service area than the Asheville Transit System (which operates only within the city limits).

The state’s Rural Operating Assistance Program, which partially supports Mountain Mobility, is providing 7 percent more financial assistance this year than last, reported Braine.

Mountain Mobility has already added a pair of “feeder routes” linking Black Mountain with the Asheville bus system. The three additional routes, said Braine, will most likely run north, south and west from Asheville. To qualify for state funding, however, the routes must meet a demonstrated need, show a potential for significant usage, and focus on employment-related transportation. The fare is $3 for a one-way trip, and the buses are available between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. To activate the bus service, patrons must call 258-0168 and make a reservation.

Congratulations UNCA Bulldogs

UNCA basketball coach Eddie Biedenbach and Athletics Director Joni Comstock were on hand to accept a proclamation honoring the Bulldogs’ Big South Conference Tournament win. Biedenbach thanked the commissioners and the city of Asheville for their support, saying the team had improved as the tournament progressed, inspired by the encouragement of fans. Comstock noted: “These men are fine athletes, but also fine students and fine citizens. Thank you for recognizing them.” And team member Alex Kregel, a senior, said: “Thank you for your support. Going to Birmingham and playing in the tournament was an awesome experience.”

May proclaimed Foster Care Month and Older Americans Month

The board unanimously passed a pair of proclamations. Commissioner David Gantt read a proclamation designating May as Foster Care Month, saying, “You don’t think about foster care until you have to deal with it; Buncombe County has a remarkable foster-care system.”

Commissioner Bill Stanley presented Nancy Ostergaard of the Aging Consortium with a proclamation naming May as Older Americans Month, noting that “39,000 people aged 60 and older live, work and contribute to the city of Asheville.” Ostergaard thanked the Buncombe County Council on Aging for its involvement in obtaining the designation.

Board appointments

In other news, the commissioners appointed Herbert Watts and Dr. Barbara Bowman-Hensley to the Board of Health, Amy Kasdof to the Mental Health Reform Advisory Task Force, and Kate Beatty and Debra Birchfield to the Women’s Commission.

David Gantt, however, objected to two nominees for the Board of Adjustment, Ann Cross and Martin Lewis, noting that they’ve already served two terms each. “I don’t like the idea of appointing the same people over and over again,” said Gantt. The commissioners agreed to postpone the Board of Adjustment appointments until May 6 in hopes of receiving additional applications for those seats.

More tax-penalty waivers

The commissioners also approved tax-penalty waivers for two hotels. The Days Inn West and the Country Inn & Suites both submitted hardship requests seeking to have their late-payment penalties waived. Commissioner Vice Chairman David Young, noting that the board had also voted to waive penalties for the Ramada Inn and the Grove Park Inn in recent months, asked Kelly Miller of the Tourism Development Authority why there have been more of these requests lately. Miller responded that none of these establishments had ever been late with their tax payments before.

Asheville resident Jerry Rice also expressed concern over the recent spate of tax waivers, saying: “I think this needs to be investigated. There might be an underlying issue here.” Miller, however, dismissed it as coincidence, saying that in one case it was due to the weather and in another to late mail pickup. The businesses that tend to be problems, said Miller, are the ones that are always late.

In an unusual move, County Attorney Joe Connolly asked that the Board of Commissioners meeting be continued to April 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the courthouse — rather than going into closed session after the public meeting — to discuss a potential real-estate acquisition. The commissioners unanimously approved the request.

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