Asheville City Council

What do Pittsburgh, Portland, Santa Barbara, Vancouver and Brooklyn have in common? None of these large metropolitan areas has an eight-lane highway running through it.

Traffic-engineering consultant Michael Moule reported this tidbit during the Asheville City Council’s July 13 formal session. Moule is one of two consultants hired by the Southern Environmental Law Center to research and weigh in on the long-simmering debate over whether the planned expansion of Interstate 240 through West Asheville should have six lanes or eight.

Moule’s presentation came at the request of Council member Brownie Newman, who told his colleagues it was important to hear what Moule and fellow consultant Joseph Passonneau had to say because the state Department of Transportation had scheduled a public forum on the highway widening for the very next night (July 14). Newman also explained that the forum was being held so the DOT could explain why it still favors eight lanes for I-240 despite new traffic estimates showing a substantial reduction in the number of vehicles projected to use the highway in the coming decades. Moule, noted Newman, is quite familiar with the issues surrounding the I-240 expansion, having been Asheville’s transportation engineer before accepting a similar position in Florida.

But Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower objected to adding Moule’s presentation to the agenda, noting that informational presentations are usually made during Council work sessions. Mumpower also expressed concern about “further politicizing the issue.”

Council member Holly Jones, however, insisted that Moule be allowed to speak. “To not hear from the intelligence that we have — to stick our heads in the sand — would be doing a disservice to Asheville,” she declared.

And Council member Jan Davis called Moule’s presentation an “opportunity to learn.”

After some discussion, Council members agreed to let the two consultants speak for a total of 10 minutes.

Moule immediately launched into a PowerPoint presentation that explained how he’d conducted his study, which compared projected traffic flow for six- and eight-lane configurations based on the DOT’s revised traffic projections. The updated numbers predict about 99,000 vehicles per day using I-240 through West Asheville in 2030 — nearly one-third fewer vehicles than DOT officials had originally projected for 2025.

Passing grade

Moule couched his assessment in terms of the DOT’s guidelines for “level of service” — a grade that reflects the ability of a given stretch of road to accommodate traffic. An “A” level of service means unimpeded traffic flow; an “F” (the lowest grade) indicates the road has reached capacity.

A six-lane highway, said Moule, could accommodate the currently projected traffic through Asheville at an acceptable level of service, with only one segment of highway reaching level E (stop-and-go traffic) during peak rush hour. But this could be raised to a D grade (less congested and flowing) by improving the design of on- and off-ramps, he added.

Moule also displayed photos showing what each level of service actually looks like on a highway: Level A depicted a scattering of cars, while level F showed a traffic jam.

Next up was Passonneau, who introduced himself by noting that as a career transportation planner, he’d worked on most of the major highway projects in the country. Widely recognized as an expert in his field, Passonneau wrote an article about the history of the Washington, D.C., highway system that appeared in a recent issue of National Geographic magazine. Highway activists in the audience, on hand to support a six-lane I-240, seemed to greet Passonneau’s appearance at the lectern with an admiration that bordered on awe. Knowing his time was limited, Passonneau said he wanted to add just two things to Moule’s presentation. “Traffic always damages the corridor it goes through,” he declared. “And if citizens aren’t involved from beginning to the end, the project will not be successful.”

After both men had spoken, Vice Mayor Mumpower praised Moule for a “great presentation,” noting, “You speak a language that we’ve had a little trouble getting a hold of from our good friends at DOT.” Mumpower also asked Moule if he would be available to make his presentation at a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a committee, made up of local elected officials from several municipalities, that makes recommendations to the state DOT on regional-transportation issues; Mumpower and Jones are Asheville’s appointees). Moule did not commit but said he’d see if his schedule would permit it.

The last slides Moule showed before leaving the lectern included the information about cities larger than Asheville that don’t have eight-lane highways. He also pointed out that major cities such as San Francisco and Milwaukee are actually spending public funds to eliminate lanes from their highways. Those statistics seemed to raise an unspoken question that state transportation planners will surely have to answer before a final decision is made on the number of lanes for I-240: Why is the N.C. Department of Transportation pushing for eight lanes through West Asheville when major cities across North America are content with smaller highways?

Once upon a time, the DOT could answer that question with traffic projections showing 140,000 vehicles per day driving I-240 through Asheville in the year 2030.

But times have changed — and so have those estimates.

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