Is wider better?

Peer 30 years into Asheville’s future, and all the numbers get bigger: More people, more cars, more homes, more stores, more jobs, more growth — and more traffic.

“I guess we all have to accept, at some point, that the face of Asheville is changing,” conceded Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick during a Sept. 1 meeting with North Carolina Department of Transportation officials to discuss the planned extension of Interstate 26 through the heart of town. Construction is slated to begin 2003.

The project will include major improvements to the existing I-240/Patton Avenue interchange and the Smokey Park Bridge, which carries 91,000 vehicles every day, according to 1997 DOT traffic counts. The nearly 50-year-old bridge was designed and built to handle up to 90,000 vehicles per day, notes Asheville Transportation Planner Ron Fuller. DOT’s latest 25-year projection for the bridge approaches 140,000 vehicles per day, putting it well over capacity by the year 2020.

And the agency’s latest best-guess for I-240 — particularly the stretch from Haywood Road to the bridge — approaches 90,000 by 2020. That’s almost double what a typical four-lane highway is designed for, says DOT Statewide Thoroughfare Engineer Blake Norwood.

According to the agency’s crystal-ball math, it all adds up to eight-laning I-240 through west Asheville now, to meet the demand in the coming years, and building a new connector that lets I-26 traffic bypass the Smoky Park Bridge.

But some critics — while acknowledging the need to alleviate traffic problems on the bridge, where traffic must weave across several lanes to access exit ramps — don’t buy the numbers. DOT’s traffic projections, they complain, are hard to justify — and always changing. “The facts have never, ever shown that [I-26] is going to bring the traffic,” proclaims Asheville resident Pat Skalski, a member of a 1993 citizens’ advisory committee for selecting I-26’s route through the Asheville area. The 1997 counts pegged traffic on U.S. Highway 19-23, north of downtown, at less than 10,000 vehicles per day, she notes.

And, just a few years ago, DOT forecast less than 70,000 vehicles per day for that stretch by 2020, and recommended widening it to six lanes, Skalski says. “The numbers are a moving target,” she complains.

True, concedes Norwood, who applies the same moniker to DOT’s forecast numbers, acknowledging that this may fuel public distrust of the transportation agency. “But as we get closer to the construction date [2002], we have justifiable reasons for the changes. Recasting the numbers is part of the process: We’re not trying to do something evil.” More recent traffic counts, he explains, indicated that DOT’s original forecast was simply too low.

A series of public workshops and a hearing, planned for early next summer may influence design choices on the project, but at this point, DOT doesn’t appear likely to scale down the project.

Norwood adds, “The last thing we want to do is build the project to six lanes, only to find — a few years later — that the highway’s at or over capacity again.”

And the number was six

Traffic forecasting “is not an exact science,” DOT Transportation Engineer Mark Freeman explains. In the early 1990s, DOT relied on pre-1989 traffic counts, factoring in the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s projections for population and household increases, as well as data on where people live, where they have to go, and which road they’re most likely to take to get there, Freeman continues. All that data was plugged into a computer modeling program, which spit out a number: 67,000 vehicles per day on the Haywood Road/French Broad River section of I-240 by 2020.

The typical six-lane interstate can handle about 80,000 vehicles — and slightly less in terrain like Asheville’s, Norwood reports.

But the actual traffic volumes for 1989-97 — as well as other indicators tracked by Asheville city planners — grew faster than DOT had projected. “You see how much [Asheville] has grown in the past 10 years. Just imagine how much it will grow in 25 years,” argues Freeman. More people going to more jobs (and other destinations) equals more traffic.

And, plugging in that updated data, the new forecast for I-240 came in at 88,000 — too much for a six-lane interstate. Revising the numbers “is very common,” Freeman observes, adding, “We’re trying to hit an educated guess.”

But are the data reliable? UNC-Charlotte Transportation Science Professor David Hartgen cautions, “There are two problems with projecting [traffic]: Estimating urban growth and converting that into trips generated. If it’s well done, it can be fairly accurate.” But traffic-projection models based on what works for larger cities such as Charlotte or Raleigh don’t always fit smaller cities like Asheville, he points out.

Skalski, for instance, wonders if the numbers take into account the high percentage of retirees in the Asheville area — who don’t have jobs to go to and might, understandably, drive less than other residents. “We’ve got a higher median age than the U.S. average,” Skalski points out. And DOT, she argues, “has overprojected the growth rate for Buncombe County.”

For his part, Hartgen estimates that the projected volume of I-26 through-traffic alone (trucks and other vehicles not stopping in Asheville) “wouldn’t be sufficient to put Asheville over the top” and mandate eight lanes for I-240. Right now, the total interstate traffic through west Asheville — which includes local traffic — is less than 50,000 vehicles per day, he notes, making him skeptical of DOT’s projections. When he heard that the agency has recommended an eight-lane highway, Hartgen exclaimed, “What are they expecting through there — aircraft carriers?”

A six-lane highway, Hartgen maintains, could handle up to 90,000 vehicles per day. “Less than that, in Asheville, because you’ve got some tight geometry,” he allows. In other words, all those curves in western North Carolina’s roads decrease their carrying capacity.

But Hartgen does give DOT a small break, observing, “It’s possible that they’re looking ahead, to avoid the construction cost of adding more lanes down the road.” Significant population growth in the Asheville metropolitan area — if it were accompanied by job growth — might warrant eight lanes for I-240 in the future.

Looking ahead

That’s just it: the future, says Norwood. Building eight lanes now is far less expensive (and intrusive to surrounding neighborhoods and businesses) than it would be 20 or 30 years from now, due to the ever-rising costs of construction and land acquisition. And routing I-26 west of town, through the Erwin Hills and Leicester area, would cost much more than making the best use of I-240 — both because of the additional construction needed and because DOT would have to buy at least twice as many homes and businesses, and disturb far more natural habitat and stream areas, Norwood continues.

But if DOT built six lanes now and I-240/I-26 exceeded capacity a few years later, “I don’t know if we’d come back and do it again,” says DOT staffer Tom Kendig, the project manager for I-240. Asheville City Council members have asked that DOT consider adding noise walls, better landscaping and retaining walls that would reduce the amount of right-of-way needed for the project. “If we do all that, I don’t think we’d go through it again.” Asheville would be stuck with congestion.

“I don’t buy it,” declares Asheville resident Rusty Sivils, who served on the citizens’ committee with Skalski in 1993. Back then, the committee’s mix of neighborhood advocates, business people, housing experts and environmental activists voted 7-3 to approve the through-town I-26 corridor and the widening of I-240 — to six lanes. Like Skalski, Sivils voted against the overall project because of the widening proposal.

“It’s not necessary to widen I-240 to alleviate traffic on the bridge,” alleges Sivil, who represented the Western North Carolina Alliance, a local environmental group, on the committee. Instead, he says, DOT should consider alternatives to the growing traffic, like a park-and-ride shuttle service for downtown employees, and working with the Transit Authority to expand bus service. They could recommend it to the Transit Authority Besides, Sivils speculates, building the superhighway will further exacerbate the traffic problem by “simply inviting more traffic into the city from the south and southwest.”

In answer to the build-it-and-they’ll-come complaint, Norwood responds, “The counter to that is: Don’t build it, the six-lane highway will reach capacity, and people will use city streets — the way people now take Kimberly Avenue to avoid Merrimon Avenue traffic.”

Then Asheville should definitely consider alternatives, asserts Asheville attorney Betty Lawrence, who fought the widening of Broadway Avenue, and sent City Council members a detailed memo questioning the I-240 proposal. “It’s not the trucks waiting at the Tennessee line: It’s the local traffic that [DOT says] mandates eight lanes,” argues Lawrence. And the heart of that local traffic is rush-hour travelers, going to and from work.

She suggests that businesses and local government (Buncombe County and the city are two of the area’s largest employers) stagger work hours slightly, so that not everyone hits the roads at the same time. DOT could create fast lanes for car-poolers on I-240, similar to those in Atlanta and other cities. And future growth could be planned with an eye toward clustering populations, “so that we don’t have to drive everywhere,” Lawrence suggests.

Hartgen, though, has doubts about such proposals. “People always mention those things, but we’re a free society — and most people want to drive their own cars,” he argues, adding, “Even if public transportation in Asheville tripled in the coming years, that wouldn’t [decrease] the traffic volumes significantly.”

Norwood concedes that “You can get more ridership by improving [public-transporation] routes.” But he points out that federal and state governments have decreased public-transit funding in recent years, placing the financial burden on municipalities (Asheville already subsidizes its bus sytem to the tune of almost $1 million). And the city doesn’t have sufficient population density to support a public rail system like Atlanta’s MARTA (plus, Asheville’s terrain makes developing such a system more expensive), Norwood continues.

To encourage park-and-ride van service, the city could make parking downtown more expensive, or forbid it. And city officials could encourage more dense development, he observes, pragmatically. “Density is easy to talk about, but when you start doing it, the neighborhood [residents] next to it come up to City Council and say, ‘What are you doing? We don’t want all that next to us!'” Norwood notes.

In a Colorado ski town, city officials decided to subsidize affordable housing, when it became apparent that resort workers couldn’t afford to live in the increasingly high-priced homes in the area and were having to commute from farther and farther away, adding to traffic problems. “These are all local decisions,” says Norwood about such interwined urban, planning and transportation issues, adding, “Politicians are often reluctant to do such things.”

But Skalski says Asheville residents and politicians can be receptive to alternative ideas. “No one way is going to fix our transportation problems: We need a little of this and a little of that.” For one thing, she maintains, DOT ought to put more money into maintaining the road systems we have, before investing in more road-building — a concept she read about in a Congressional Budget Office report.

“We shouldn’t [widen I-240] if it’s not needed, and it places an undue burden on the people affected,” Skalski asserts. Going to eight lanes in west Asheville would swallow up 68 homes and nearly 30 businesses — 15 percent more than six lanes would.

DOT officials seem open to tweaking the design elements of the plan, such as noise walls and landscape buffering. “It’s not too late in the process,” says Design Engineer Tom Shearin. The agency will schedule a public hearing on the project for late next spring or early next summer, he notes. And based on DOT’s Sept. 1 meeting with City Council, the agency is considering noise walls and landscaping that would provide a better buffer for west Asheville residents and businesses. But such features aren’t cheap, Shearin cautions: A mile-long, 20-foot-high noise wall would cost close to $1.6 million; a 1,000-foot-long wall, roughly $320,000. “If it’s needed, we’ll add it into the project,” he says.

That’s all well and good, but it’s still just reacting to the traffic counts, Sivils remarks. “What they’re not doing is taking measures to keep the traffic from growing endlessly.” But even this confirmed environmentalist admits that finding alternatives to our automobile society is difficult — especially when gas is cheap, and public transit is inconvenient: “As long as people have a car in their driveway, they’re going to use it, unless it becomes so much of a hassle that it’s worthwhile to walk, bike or take the bus.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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