Asheville City Council

The long-running debate over widening a three-mile stretch of Interstate 240 through West Asheville seems to flare and fade, depending on what ideas are on the table. And now, a proposal by the city’s traffic engineer promises to bring the issue front and center once more.

In the face of conflicting traffic projections by the N.C. Department of Transportation, Asheville Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek and Council member Brownie Newman urged City Council, at its Nov. 16 work session, to have city staff conduct their own study.

This late in the game, with so much on the line, it’s hard not to resort to sports metaphors. And considering the fate of past efforts to break through the DOT’s defenses, this play is a Hail Mary.

The DOT has remained fixed in its position that a couple of decades from now, eight lanes will be needed to allow smooth traffic flow through West Asheville. That stance is based on a 2002 traffic study which projected that, by 2025, an estimated 143,000 vehicles a day will swarm the highway.

Those numbers won the endorsement of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, the local agency charged with advising the DOT on the matter, for the eight-lane option.

The DOT continues to hold fast to that position despite the agency’s own subsequent study, which whittled the projected traffic count down to 99,100 vehicles per day by 2030 — five years after the original target date. Meanwhile, despite requests (by a former Asheville traffic engineer, among others) that the agency reassess the situation, it has refused.

In July, Butzek upped the ante, asking the DOT to perform a new type of computer-based traffic simulation that he says is the “state of the practice.” Known in the industry as CORSIM, it mimics common traffic behavior along roadways. Butzek, who has been Asheville’s traffic engineer for the past two years, says he became familiar with the software involved while working as an engineering consultant in Florida.

“This could bring closure to lane-alignment [issues] in West Asheville,” Butzek told Council.

But the DOT denied his request, citing the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s previous resolution supporting eight lanes in its refusal to pursue further study. The DOT also said that, if it did do a CORSIM test, it would prefer to use a higher-tech version of the software, rather than the standard version requested by Butzek. Using the high-tech version, it would take more time to complete the study.

Butzek, however, told Council that even a projection using the basic software (which would cost the city $500 and require city workers to compile 30 hours of data) would be more accurate than both of the previous traffic projections. “I think it would provide much better information,” he said.

Newman later told Xpress that he’d originally intended to push Council to pass a resolution supporting six lanes, saying he knows that a clear majority on Council supports the six-lane plan — at least in private. But Newman said he wasn’t sure he could actually muster the votes in a public meeting, and correspondence with Butzek had convinced him that the new test was needed.

So, with Butzek’s support, Newman called on Council to direct city staff to perform the CORSIM analysis themselves. “We need to get this final piece of information, so the decision-makers can base their decisions on scientific information,” asserted Newman.

But Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower cautioned against charging ahead, arguing that the DOT is the proper agency to do such a study, and that even though the agency had refused a request made in a letter from city staff, a direct request by Council might carry more weight.

Newman, however, seemed skeptical that appealing to the DOT would make a difference. “It’s not going to happen unless we make it happen,” he declared.

And Mayor Charles Worley proposed amending the letter to the DOT to say that Asheville would conduct its own study if the DOT refused.

But with the Metropolitan Planning Organization poised to vote on a new resolution two days later, Mumpower (one of City Council’s two liaisons on the MPO — Council member Holly Jones is the other) said he intended to try to stall that vote until the new developments can play out. Newman maintained that the MPO’s draft resolution, which calls for the smallest roadway that can still provide for traffic growth, is consistent with whatever the study returns, so the MPO should go ahead with its vote.

Mumpower, however, persisted. “I think the MPO would like this information,” he said. “Let’s let [the DOT] make the errors and not us.” The following day, Mumpower told Xpress that he was drafting a letter asking to delay the upcoming MPO vote (see sidebar, “If Six Turned Out to be Eight”).

“We couldn’t have been nicer and nudge-ier,” said Jones, who amended the Council resolution by demanding that a time limit be set on any action taken by the DOT. Language was also added saying that the study should not interfere with the highway project’s time line. Construction is slated to begin in 2008.

On that basis, Council voted unanimously to send the letter to the DOT. But before that vote could be taken at a work session, the rules had to be suspended and public comment had to be collected. Of the handful of people who attended the meeting to hear the latest developments, a few spoke.

“There are a lot of issues still at stake,” said Asheville attorney Betty Lawrence, who urged Council to stand up to the DOT. “When you’re right, they will say ‘no’ until they say ‘yes.’ We’re almost there.”

But some fear that, even in the face of information and statistics, the six- or eight-lane issue is ultimately a political one. “The question really boils down to whether you are a Republican or a Democrat,” said one woman.

And by the end of the week, the letter to the DOT had been drafted, signed by the mayor and sent, with a demand that the department respond within 10 days. Lacking such a response, or if the DOT appears to be dragging its feet, the city will proceed on its own.

And if the DOT does decide to perform the new study, Council should expect it to take at least three to four months, versus the one month the city would need to conduct its own study, said Butzek.

Public meeting postponed

A public meeting scheduled for Nov. 30 at the Public Works Building has been postponed. Council typically schedules such meetings whenever there’s a fifth Tuesday in the month, to give residents of specific city neighborhoods (Central Asheville, in this case) a chance to register their concerns. At press time, a new meeting date had not been set.

If six turned out to be eight

An attempt by Asheville Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower and Council member Holly Jones to delay a Nov. 18 vote by the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization failed to muster enough backers, and the MPO overwhelmingly approved a new resolution to the N.C. Department of Transportation — despite disagreement among MPO members as to what the resolution actually meant.

The attempt to delay the vote came on the heels of a request by the Asheville City Council that the DOT conduct another, potentially more accurate, traffic analysis to determine whether the portion of Interstate 240 in question should have six lanes or eight. The city has promised that, if the DOT fails to conduct the CORSIM computer test, city staff will collect the data themselves.

“We want a decision that is based on the best information available,” Mumpower told the Technical Advisory Committee (the voting arm of the MPO, which also includes staff appointees). The MPO includes representatives from towns and regions all over Western North Carolina. “There is a sense that we are not there yet.” Jones, Asheville’s other delegate on the traffic committee, seconded Mumpower’s motion.

Although she and Mumpower have openly disagreed on the issue of six vs. eight lanes for I-240, both supported delaying the vote until the new results are in hand. Holding off, they maintained, would not affect the construction time line.

But the two met resistance from others on the committee, who were obviously tired of revisiting the issue. “It’s time to fish or cut bait,” declared Haywood County representative Bill Noland. “The more we delay, the more the cost goes up.”

Although the resolution doesn’t take a firm stand on the number of lanes, it does ask the DOT to build as few lanes as the agency deems necessary, based on the evidence it has. Both the DOT and the MPO have so far declared a preference for eight lanes, however.

Gordon Meyers, a former DOT employee who represents the N.C. Board of Transportation on the advisory committee, pushed to get the vote over with.

“This is not a new issue; this issue has been in place for 10 years,” said Meyers. And notwithstanding a DOT representative’s statement that she couldn’t say how long it would take to conduct a CORSIM test — and City Council’s own stated preference that the test not affect the construction timeline — Meyers insisted that a delay would be inevitable and would increase the risk of losing funding.

All but four committee members supported moving forward with a vote on the new resolution. But while some encouraged their fellow committee members to base their vote strictly on the language of the resolution — which asks the DOT to build only as much road as the data supports — others on both sides of the controversy interpreted the resolution as offering de facto support for eight lanes, since that is what the DOT has supported all along (as did a previous MPO directive).

The resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority. (Because of weighted voting, the actual vote count does not directly reflect the number of TAC members.)

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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