A consultant’s revised traffic projections for the Asheville area has finally arrived, and the N.C. Department of Transportation has responded by proposing the same solution it was pushing several years ago: Widen Interstate 240 through West Asheville to eight lanes now, or by the year 2025 high volumes of traffic will bring motorists to a dead halt at peak hours. And unless a committee of local elected officials goes along with the eight-lane proposal, the already oft-delayed project may be further postponed, DOT staff implied at City Council’s May 7 work session.
The recommendation drew gasps from citizens in the audience and a momentary silence from Council members. What’s more, the possibility of further delaying construction elicited a mild disagreement among Council members, stemming from the project’s history: In the late 1990s, City Council members endorsed a task-force recommendation that called for widening I-240 in West Asheville to six lanes; but DOT recommended eight, spurring local protests and spawning at least two citizens’ groups, one of which worked with DOT to come up with alternatives for another part of the overall project — a connector linking I-26 and 240 at the Patton Avenue/Smokey Park Bridge intersection. In the process, DOT has moved back the construction date several times. A mere two years ago, connector construction was slated to begin in 2003; on May 7 the agency announced that the project won’t start until 2008.
Council member Joe Dunn said he feels frustrated by these delays.
But Council member Holly Jones said demanding such a quick action on the eight-lane proposal — and implying that elected officials (and citizens’ groups) would be delaying the project simply by asking for more time to digest the numbers — just isn’t fair. Citizens’ groups and elected officials have been waiting a year for the revised traffic model, and DOT postponed its presentation to Council a month ago, Jones emphasized.
Giving the Transportation Advisory Committee a mere 10 days to pass on the proposal amounts to requiring a “lightning fast” decision, said Jones. On May 16, she and Council member Brian Peterson will meet with the other local elected officials who serve on the TAC to discuss the proposal, take public comment and vote on DOT’s recommendation.
Dunn, however, urged action, declaring, “If we don’t get started on this thing, we’re gonna have some people killed out there.”
And Mayor Charles Worley seemed impressed by DOT’s revised traffic counts (previous data had been based on a 1989 DOT study; the latest numbers come from a private consultant’s report). “We’ll have a doubling of traffic by 2025,” said Worley.
“We may have a doubling,” noted Jones, echoing a point made repeatedly by such local coalitions as the I-26 Connector Awareness Group a few years ago and by the I-26 Community Coordinating Committee more recently. Both groups have questioned DOT’s initial traffic projections, and the Coordinating Committee — co-chaired by former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette and WNC Alliance Director Brownie Newman — had endorsed a six-lane design.
In response to the controversy, DOT and the city agreed to co-sponsor a series of design forums two years ago, which brought together concerned citizens, business owners, city staff and traffic specialists. Participants came up with several alternatives to an eight-lane highway through West Asheville, which were then presented to DOT. The I-26 Connector Awareness Group, in particular, asserted that widening highways can actually create more traffic (a phenomenon called “traffic inducement”). In the end, however, none of the proposed alternatives — which included separating local and interstate traffic on the east side of the French Broad River and turning Patton Avenue into a gateway boulevard into the city — appear to have deterred DOT from sticking with its original eight-lane plan.
Those alternatives, which DOT says it is still considering, do not reduce the projected traffic volumes for I-240 between Patton and the I-40/I-26 interchange, explained Beverly Williams, DOT’s local coordinator for statewide planning.
The agency’s latest figures — based on a traffic model by Stantec Consulting — begin with the roughly 50,000 vehicles estimated to travel the West Asheville section of I-240 every day. By the year 2025, that volume will increase to 117,000 vpd with a four-lane highway, 137,000 with six lanes and about 143,000 with eight, Williams reported.
At 117,000 per day, traffic flow on a four-lane highway would be reduced to a dead stop; at 137,000 on six lanes, traffic flow “would be miserable”; and at 143,000 on eight lanes, traffic would slow significantly during peak hours but still be acceptable, Mark Freeman of Stantec explained. At those traffic volumes, only a 12-lane highway might keep motorists at about the same level of ease (or dis-ease) experienced on I-240 today, he remarked.
Hearing all that, Council member Carl Mumpower asked, “How good are y’all at projections?”
“I’m awful,” Freeman replied, drawing laughter. But he asserted that his traffic model is based on solid information from city staff about housing, employment, population growth and land-use patterns in the metropolitan area.
The projections are reasonable, said city Planning Director Scott Shuford. By 2025, it’s estimated that Asheville’s population will have grown by 21,000 and Buncombe’s by 70,000, he noted. Even if some residents bike, walk or bus to work — and even considering that about 20 percent of those vehicles will be through traffic on the new I-26 — “there’s going to be a lot of [local] cars in those [traffic-county] numbers,” said Shuford. And if I-240 isn’t widened, antsy motorists will peel off onto city thoroughfares such as Merrimon Avenue, Hendersonville Road, Amboy Road and others, he warned. Council members must consider how a decision about the size of I-240 affects other streets, argued Shuford. “It’s not much of a choice.”
But Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy was also concerned about some other numbers and impacts. She asked how many residences and businesses would be demolished if I-240 were widened to eight lanes.
About 100, DOT staff replied.
Bellamy pressed the agency on other points, as well: Planners, she maintained, must consider the whole slate of related projects — including the connector, a widening proposal for I-26 south of the airport, and a redesign of the I-26/I-40 interchange — rather than designing each independently of the others. For instance, redesigning the Patton/Smokey Park Bridge connector might separate interstate and , perhaps eliminating the need for eight lanes, Bellamy implied.
The traffic volume at the connector is projected to be about 69,000 vpd by 2025 with the redesign and new bridges being considered, replied Williams. The eight-lane proposal is being made for I-240 in West Asheville, and the projects along the corridor will not be designed independently, she emphasized.
But does the traffic model take public transportation into account, Jones queried. Freeman replied that he had taken 4 percent off his projections.
Jones then declared that it “doesn’t seem right” to hurry into a decision. The TAC has been waiting for the new projections for about a year; now they’re being asked to make a decision in a matter of days. “You say [making a decision] now is part of the normal process. But I think we’ve all learned we’re not normal,” said Jones, a little tongue in cheek.
DOT is trying to balance keeping the project moving along with making the best decision for the community, DOT Project Engineer Drew Joyner relied. The TAC doesn’t have to make a decision May 16, said Joyner, insisting that DOT isn’t trying to “cram this thing” down everyone’s throats.
But what effect would delaying a decision have on the project’s schedule? wondered Mumpower.
It would slow the process down, but not by much, Joyner replied, acknowledging that it was perhaps “a little naive” to expect the TAC to make a decision so quickly.
If the TAC and DOT could not agree, the Federal Highway Administration would step into the process — and possibly delay the project further, Williams mentioned.
But the FHA would also take into consideration the very factors Council members had brought up, such as public transportation, said Asheville’s MPO Coordinator Dan Baechtold, countering Williams’ remarks.
All that said, Mumpower thanked DOT for having taken the time to make the report, remarking that the tone of some Council members’ comments and questions were adversial. He said, “Some of us have come at you hard, but we want to help move things forward.”
Mumpower’s comment about the tone of the remarks and questions — primarily from Jones and Bellamy — had the two women exchange glances, as if to say, “Do you want to respond to that one, or should I?”
Bellamy took the cue: “Questions need to be asked,” she said. “I don’t think [the tone] was adversarial.”
Council members took no action on the report, and there was no public comment.
[In a preliminary meeting on May 9, the TAC voted to hold a public hearing on June 12 at 6:30 p.m. at A-B Tech’s Laurel Auditorium, and make a decision on DOT’s recommendation on June 20 at 12:10 p.m. (location TBA).]
At their May 7 work session, Asheville City Council members indicated that they will approve the following items:
• A grant application to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Services. The $225,000 grant would partially fund the continued assignment of three police officers to the city’s public-housing communities (the positions had been funded through a federal grant instituted in 1990 but discontinued by the Bush administration, Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino reported). The Asheville Housing Authority would supply $107,736 in matching funds.
• A May 28 public hearing on the voluntary annexation of phase one of the new Reynolds Mountain subdivision in north Asheville. The owners of the 80-acre property have asked to be annexed, effective June 30.
• A $52,277 budget amendment reflecting a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy a mobile “safety house” and associated equipment to help educate the public about home safety and residential fire sprinkler systems, according to city staff reports.
• A contract with Crisp Hughes Evans LLP, certified public accountants, to audit the city’s books for a base fee of $54,000.
• A $10,000 budget amendment reflecting a grant from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Division of Forest Resources. The money will be used to update the inventory of all trees located in city rights of way. The information will be used to help develop a long-term management plan for city trees, including future tree planting and forestry planning, and to provide educational and volunteer opportunities for community organizations, according to city staff.
• A funding proposal for the city’s annual summer Youth Employment Program. The city had planned to discontinue the program as part of a series of budget cuts forced by the state budget shortfall, city staff reported. But Community Solutions for Youth Employment — a multiagency support program sponsored by Eliada Homes — offered to provide $37,400 in funding for this summer. Eliada Home has received the funding as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
• The possession/consumption of malt beverages and/or unfortified wine at the following 2002 events: Goombay, the Mountain Sports Festival, the Greek Festival, Bele Chere and Downtown After Five.