If you’ve ever had a gripe about traffic on Merrimon Avenue, raise your hand.
Asheville City Council members seem to think there’s a problem with traffic on the four-lane thoroughfare, too. But it’s a state-maintained road, which ties city officials’ hands. The best chance for Council members, residents and business owners to suggest improvements to Merrimon will come on Thursday, Sept. 28, when the Transportation Advisory Committee will review the 2002-2008 draft of recommended road improvements for the Asheville metropolitan area.
Asheville Transportation Planner Ron Fuller brought Council members up to date on the draft document — referred to as the TIP, for Transportation Improvement Program. It’s a detailed list of projects the North Carolina Department of Transportation is considering completing before the year 2008. Merrimon Avenue is on the list. But with a projected cost of $36 million, the NCDOT’s proposal for improvements on Merrimon is unfunded and not likely to happen before 2008, Fuller noted. Asheville has a chance to push the DOT into action, however: City staff recommend creating a middle turn lane for Merrimon, reducing it to a three-lane road. That approach would cost a mere $2.5 million, Fuller pointed out.
The math made sense to Council members, who endorsed the idea, especially after Fuller mentioned that the DOT’s answer to improving the road is widening it to five lanes. “Then you’ve got a highway [through] town,” Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger complained.
And, as Fuller noted, widening Merrimon to five lanes would “wipe out all the businesses [on Merrimon and negate] the need for five lanes, [so] all you’ve done is spend $36 million.”
Council members gave their consent for Fuller to pitch the three-lane option to the DOT. They also reviewed several other Asheville-area projects on the 2002-2008 TIP: widening Long Shoals Road in the year 2002 (city staff recommend a three-lane “gateway” corridor that would include amenities such as sidewalks and a median, which DOT will consider if the city agrees to pitch in 40 percent of the sidewalk costs and take over maintenance of the median, once completed); adding more traffic lanes at Exit 44 (Highway 19-23) at Interstate 40; redesigning the Merrimon Avenue/Interstate 240 interchange; widening Louisiana Avenue north of Patton Avenue (a project listed in the TIP since the 1970s but never funded; staff recommend urging the DOT to consider the three-lane gateway option, instead of four-laning Louisiana); widening Sweeten Creek Road south of I-40; widening Brevard Road from Sardis Road to the Blue Ridge Parkway; and adding a new bridge over the Swannanoa River in Biltmore Village.
All these projects will be considered at the Sept. 28 TAC meeting. Council member Barbara Field chairs the committee.
The cost of festivals
What’s the value to Asheville of the nearly 50 special events and festivals the city stages each year?
About $22 million in economic impact to the area, reported Asheville Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson. But, up front, putting on such events cost the city $375,008 this year, reported Brinson at Council’s Sept. 19 work session — weighing the cost of staffing, cleanup, policing, park maintenance and other expenses against the revenues from major events such as Bele Chere.
With a nod to the language of politics, Mayor Leni Sitnick noted, “Instead of a ‘loss,’ we’ll call [that $375,008] a ‘cost.'” Allow that figure to grow, however, and the city could face another tax hike to support the number of festivals and special events it sponsors and co-sponsors, she reflected. “Is there a better way for us to manage these costs?” Sitnick asked Brinson. She suggested putting a cap on festival/event expenses.
Brinson replied that there is no easy answer. Special events and festivals “have become a significant part of Asheville’s quality of life,” he reported, attracting more than half-a-million people to town each year. “I don’t want to be the one to say ‘yes’ to one [festival] and ‘no’ to another,” allowed Brinson.
Council member Charles Worley urged Council members to keep in mind “the big picture” about festivals and special events, before they consider capping anything: That $22 million nets the city approximately $50,000 per year in sales-tax revenues.
Council member Terry Bellamy also cautioned against capping expenses, noting that some smaller festivals — such as Goombay and the Greek Festival — might fall by the wayside if the city didn’t co-sponsor them and assist with some of the costs.
Sitnick agreed with Worley and Bellamy, but urged balancing their concerns against fiscal realities: As City Manager Jim Westbrook noted, if any more events are added, more staff would have to be hired, and costs would go up. (Requests for special events have more than doubled compared to last year, Brinson had noted.)
But the good news is that event sponsorships, which are also up, defray those costs, Brinson pitched in. At this year’s Bele Chere, sponsorships amounted to $175,000 — a substantial increase from the 1999 figure of $130,000.
With no further discussion, Council members took no formal action on Brinson’s report.
Yes, it’s yet another study, but this one won’t cost the city a dime: On Sept. 19, Council members unanimously offered their support for a state Department of Transportation feasibility study that will evaluate five potential sites for an Asheville passenger-train depot.
Usually, such studies require at least a 10-percent funding match from the municipality involved, pointed out NCDOT Transportation Planner David Bender. “We’re not asking that on this one,” he told Council members. With a little creative juggling, the DOT has tucked the study into the engineering budget for evaluating the feasibility of creating passenger-train service from Salisbury to Asheville, he explained. Possible sites — if the General Assembly approves the overall project next year — include the historic depot in Biltmore Village, an old depot on Amboy Road, and three other sites, all in the vicinity of Biltmore Village. If the study goes well, will the depot become a reality? questioned Council member Field.
“The bottom line is, what’s it going to cost?” answered Bender.
Council members waived the rules restricting them from taking formal votes during work sessions and, on a motion by Cloninger (seconded by Worley), voted 7-0 to endorse the feasibility study.
A boost for low-income housing
Council members unanimously adopted a resolution urging Sens. Jesse Helms and Charles Edwards to support the Santorum-Leiberman New Markets-Community Renewal Bill, which would authorize an immediate increase in the federal funds available nationwide for low-income housing tax credits. The increase — which would be the first in 15 years — could possibly benefit the city, Asheville Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan informed Council members. These tax credits are the primary federal funding mechanism for creating affordable rental housing, she noted; recent local projects funded by the credits include River Glen Apartments (1997), Windridge (1999) and Crowell Square (2000).