Taking back our streets

Could you imagine Patton Avenue and Interstate 240 combined into one boulevard on which you’d like to walk with your family? A lot of folks laughed at the idea, but Walter Kulash didn’t look like he was joking when he posed the question.

Speaking to a capacity crowd gathered at the Asheville High School drama theater last month, Kulash, an Orlando-based traffic engineer, explained how the idea has already been implemented or is in the works in cities like Chattanooga, Norfolk and Milwaukee.

Kulash’s presentation focused on possible alternatives to the N.C. Department of Transportation’s proposed I-26 connector project. DOT wants to widen I-240 to eight lanes. But Kulash considers the state’s plan unnecessary — and, in fact, more likely to increase than to reduce traffic congestion on the downtown portion of the thoroughfare.

DOT engineers, he said, would do better to focus their efforts on building longer and safer exit ramps in the Smokey Park Bridge area, and to downsize the proposed eight-lane roadway, which would connect I-26’s southern portion with the soon-to-be-completed northern section.

“Being a traffic engineer used to be simple; that’s why I got into it,” said the bespectacled Kulash, who graduated from N.C. State and now works for a firm that specializes in designing community-friendly traffic projects. “[In the old days, when] there was congestion because we had too many cars and not enough space … the solution was, you moved more cars by laying more pavement.”

But eventually, he said, communities run out of space and are forced to build on top of existing things — such as the 106 residences and 60 businesses slated for removal to make way for the proposed connector project.

The commonly accepted idea of moving vehicles as fast as possible has been giving way to a new approach to traffic engineering, in which “traffic performance … is balanced against other desired qualities of the street, such as its value as an address, its retail friendliness, and its role as a premier public space of the community,” he said.

But Kulash, whose visit to Asheville was sponsored by opponents of DOT’s plan, didn’t just come armed with theories; he brought facts, which he attributed to what he called the traffic-engineer’s Bible: the Highway Capacity Manual. He used standard text give his audience some basic traffic lessons.

If I-240 through West Asheville remained a four-lane highway (with improved entrance/exit ramps around the Smokey Park Bridge) and retained its existing posted speed limits, the traffic volume projected for 2020 would still move along fine, Kulash asserted. And at peak rush-hour times, near the Smokey Park interchange, motorists could expect only one additional minute during the course of their commute, compared to now.

But, he asked, “does traffic really have to flow freely during the peak of the day, or can it slow down to 25 to 30 mph?” Kulash explained that, contrary to popular impression, roads actually move more traffic in a given period of time when vehicles travel at slower speeds. In support of this seeming contradiction, he offered the following example: One lane of traffic, traveling at 60 mph, moves roughly 500 vehicles per hour. But the same lane, with a posted speed of 25 to 35 mph, can move up to 2,000 cars per hour. This is possible, Kulash said, because, at faster speeds, vehicles require much greater distances between them, in order to ensure sufficient braking distance.

A design incorporating lower speed limits on I-240, he said, might be a viable alternative to the eight-lane approach. Besides, he noted, when roads don’t get widened, people often change their commuting habits. “People are willing to change the way they live because of road improvements,” Kulash said.

And sometimes, disgruntled commuters — who were content to travel to and from their homes 20 miles away when the freeway got them to their destination in 20 minutes — decide to move back to the city, which has a useful side effect: urban revitalization.

That got Kulash’s audience imagining Patton Avenue and I-240 as one continuous boulevard. Reclaiming parts of those roadways, he said, could be accomplished by modifying existing freeways — adding traffic-calming features such as landscaping, variable-width medians and on-street parking “fronted with high-value buildings.” Chattanooga is converting U.S. Hwy. 27, a four-lane freeway around its downtown, into such a boulevard. “Taking back the streets,” Kulash calls it.

He was quick to point out, however, that Asheville residents shouldn’t expect the DOT, on its own, to implement aesthetically driven changes to its connector plans. Most state DOTs are concerned with moving traffic efficiently, he explained. But these officials are often open to communities’ ideas, and are willing to incorporate them into their projects.

If the boulevard idea proves to be too drastic a change, Kulash said there are other possibilities, such as replacing existing guardrails with picket posts, and creating pathways and interesting landscaping along I-240 and its interchanges.

“You just can’t expect a DOT engineer to make those suggestions; it’s not his job,” he cautioned, adding, “Just like we don’t expect our dentist to cut our hair.”

“This project is not set in stone,” counseled Kulash — who, during the course of his lecture, made several references to retaining Asheville’s natural beauty. “There are still opportunities for input from the community.” And he encouraged people to speak up at DOT’s priority-needs-list hearing, scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m., in the Public Works Building.

For more information, call 259-5830.

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