Opponents of the state Department of Transportation’s plan to expand the Interstate 26 connector to eight lanes through West Asheville have long argued that a less invasive six-lane road could handle the anticipated traffic — both now and in the future. And at the Asheville City Council’s July 19 work session, city Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek — citing the DOT’s own figures — agreed, saying, “In the year 2030, during afternoon rush hour, six or eight lanes will provide adequate service.”
Nonetheless, he said, the DOT is moving forward with the eight-lane plan, maintaining that it’s the only viable option for safely accommodating the projected future traffic volume.
Butzek supported his position with data from the DOT’s latest traffic-simulation analysis, commissioned last year at the city’s request. The state-of-the-art computer simulation, noted Butzek, projects that in the year 2030, an eight-lane highway would save drivers a mere nine seconds in travel time during the afternoon rush hour, compared to a six-lane road. He also pointed out that the DOT study did not include data from the morning rush hour, because “there wasn’t a significant difference between six and eight [lanes].”
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower asked Butzek why, in light of the new data, the DOT continues to insist on a bigger, more expensive road. Butzek hesitated to answer, saying he didn’t “want to put words in their mouths.” But when pressed by Mumpower, Butzek said the DOT favors eight lanes because it wants “additional capacity for emergency-type needs” such as the collapse of Interstate 40. That rationale, however, does not “outweigh genuine community impacts” associated with the bigger road, Butzek commented.
Council member Brownie Newman lashed out at the state agency, saying: “Three years ago, they gave us a number that couldn’t pass the laugh test. First they said it would be 150,000 vehicles; then they estimated 100,000 — a huge decrease. … I’m incredibly frustrated with the DOT. The results show us what they show us, and they don’t bother to call us and say it’s interesting. They say, ‘Oh, no, it’s nothing.’ It seems like in their minds a decision was made — and facts are optional. Their own study shows us there is no congestion with six lanes!”
Council member Holly Jones joined the chorus, pointing out that one of the biggest concerns voiced by both sides in the long-running debate has been that the project not be delayed (it’s now slated to begin in 2012). “If this goes to court,” she noted, “the construction project will be backed up a long way.” Jones added that a six-lane road would cost less and be completed faster. Referring to the new data, Jones shook her head and declared, “This seals the deal for me.”
Mumpower wondered whether Council members would simply be “spinning our wheels” by calling for six lanes if state highway planners have already made up their minds. He added, however, that Council could produce a resolution stating, “Your data says six lanes, and six lanes are less invasive.”
After further discussion, Council agreed by consensus to have Mayor Charles Worley invite DOT officials to a meeting to defend their eight-lane plan in light of the new data.
Another dam consultant
In other business, Council members revisited last year’s floods. City Engineer Cathy Ball gave a PowerPoint presentation that urged the city to update its guidelines for emergency spillway operations at the North Fork Reservoir. In 1995, she noted, Law Engineering, a private consultant, prepared an emergency plan for the Regional Water Authority. And in a memo to Council members, Ball pointed out that the plan “provides guidelines for when the spillway floodgates should be opened and is based upon the anticipated precipitation during a 24-hour period. … Staff believes that an updated comprehensive study of emergency operations at North Fork, to include hydrological data from the two September 2004 storm events, is necessary in order to appropriately analyze downstream impacts of emergency spillway operations.” In her presentation to Council, Ball noted with a trace of irony that, indeed, “We do have a lot of data, unfortunately, from what happened in September.” The back-to-back storms produced the worst flooding in the city in decades.
Staff’s recommendation, said Ball, is that the city spend an estimated $200,000 to hire a consultant to update the 1995 study, which she said has some flaws. In the 10 years since the plan was prepared, Ball explained, new development has occurred in the river corridor, increasing the potential damage from a flood.
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower seemed puzzled by the request. The city, he noted, had “defended ourselves by saying we followed protocol” after owners of flood-damaged Biltmore Village businesses complained that the city should have released water from the dam before the storm — and had then proceeded to let out too much water during the flooding. “We said we were standing on firm turf,” Mumpower recalled.
Ball said she’s “confident that we did what was right, based on the information we had.” But Mumpower pointed out that local business leader John Cram, who owns two properties in Biltmore Village that were damaged by the flood, had raised these points some time ago — and now, nearly a year later, staff wants to update the very plan it had cited in defense of the city’s actions.
After a brief discussion, Council members agreed to consider Ball’s request for an updated study during a formal Council session in September.