Experts, numbers and no-shows

The North Carolina Department of Transportation wants you to believe that an eight-lane highway through West Asheville is the only responsible option. And to drive home that point, DOT officials recently traveled to Asheville for a pair of meetings, seeking to win the confidence of members of the public and local officials.

Just two years ago, it looked as if an eight-lane configuration was on solid ground: DOT traffic projections showed 143,000 vehicles using the strategic stretch of highway daily by 2025. More recently, however, that ground was rocked by the DOT’s own revised projections, which concluded that the highway will have to accommodate only 99,000 vehicles per day in 2030 (five years after the original target date). That’s about one-third fewer vehicles than they’d first predicted. Despite this dramatic shift, the DOT is sticking to its guns — but other expert traffic engineers, using the same traffic projections, have concluded that six lanes would suffice.

The DOT’s biggest selling point — harrowing predictions of a traffic meltdown — has now become a rallying point for advocates of six lanes, who are marshaling their own experts to contest those forecasts.

Meanwhile, the one local board with the ability to directly influence the DOT’s strategy, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, couldn’t even muster a quorum of its members at a July 15 meeting with DOT officials where this new information was presented. The MPO, a committee of local elected officials representing several municipalities, makes recommendations to the DOT on regional transportation issues.

When past is prelude

A growing number of six-lane advocates maintains that state transportation officials are now subjectively massaging the data to fit a foregone conclusion that eight lanes will be built.

And in a July 14 public forum at A-B Tech, Senior Public Involvement Officer Ed Lewis, the moderator, introduced a panel of DOT officials who were there to defend the eight-lane configuration and field questions from the audience. Lewis got off to a bumpy start, highlighting his unfamiliarity with the region by calling West Asheville “West Ashboro” and mispronouncing the names of such prominent local officials such as Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower and former Mayor Leni Sitnick.

Although a handful of those who spoke urged the DOT to adopt the eight-lane model and move on with the project, a majority favored six lanes. Former Asheville Traffic Engineer Michael Moule, now in private practice in Florida, said he’d studied the question using the DOT’s own traffic projections and had concluded that six lanes would suffice.

And Sitnick, taking aim at the DOT’s track record, proclaimed: “Predictions? Let’s talk Broadway!” a not-too-subtle reminder that Broadway Street, widened to accommodate the agency’s projected traffic volume, now stands as a near-empty testament to how mistaken experts can be.

Ken Burleson, an engineer hired by the DOT to work on the project, explained how he’d reached the conclusion that eight lanes are needed. Even the revised projection, said Burleson, is still high enough to warrant eight lanes, to ensure that the agency wouldn’t have to come back later and widen the highway again. “The DOT does not want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that will lead to other inadequacies,” he said.

Members of the public chimed in with opinions and questions until near 10 p.m. — well past the scheduled 8 p.m. wrap-up time. Several speakers urged the officials to let Moule (who’d been hired by the Southern Environmental Law Center to study the lane question) make a PowerPoint presentation he’d prepared. Lewis declined, explaining that the forum was a DOT-sponsored event, but Moule was allotted the standard three minutes to state his case.

In your back yard?

Moule was allowed to give his full presentation at a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting the next day — but not without a fight.

After Asheville MPO representatives Holly Jones and Carl Mumpower asked the group to let Moule make his pitch, Charles Grimes (representing Biltmore Forest) balked at the idea and questioned why the MPO was even revisiting the lane issue. Dan Baechtold, an engineer with the city of Asheville who is staff adviser to the MPO, reminded Grimes that when the group had voted to support an eight-lane configuration two years ago, the resolution stipulated that the debate would be reopened if new traffic estimates were significantly lower. Grimes furrowed his brow and frowned but gave his consent.

Once again, Moule and the DOT officials gave technical explanations of how they’d crunched the numbers — and once again, the state concluded that eight lanes are needed, whereas Moule concluded that six would do.

The presentations, however, led nowhere, because there weren’t enough MPO members present to allow a legal vote. Only eight of the 18 municipalities on the board — one shy of a quorum — had bothered to send a representative. MPO Chairman Fred Niehoff, who represents the city of Hendersonville, said the MPO “should consider a change to its bylaws. … If a jurisdiction is absent for two meetings in a row,” it should be removed from the board. Niehoff added, “We’ve got some inactive communities on this board; there are some communities that think this just isn’t important enough to attend.”

Among the communities represented on the MPO are Canton, Clyde, Flat Rock, Fletcher, Laurel Park, Maggie Valley, Mills River and Montreat. Although they are nowhere near the highway in question, their votes help determine the MPO recommendations to the DOT.

In the end, the MPO put off making a decision on whether to revise its recommendation on the number of lanes until September. In the meantime, the DOT officials present at the meeting agreed to consider the information presented by Moule.


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