For the first time this campaign season, Asheville City Council candidates faced each other, focusing on transportation issues at the Get There Asheville forum earlier this evening.
While it had plenty of lighter moments (including a question about how one looks sexy on a bike) the forum, organized by Asheville on Bikes, also saw different views on issues of spending, infrastructure and transit priorities. About 50 people gathered in the River Arts District’s Odyssey Gallery to see the Council (and mayoral candidates) take part in a “Jeopardy”-style game, picking spots on an electronic board and answering the questions that followed.
As the Council race —for three of the six seats—doesn’t have a primary this year, it’s started relatively late, and this was the first public event where the candidates had the opportunity to face each other directly.
Council member Cecil Bothwell, running for his second term, said the city needed to prepare for a different world, because “driverless cars will change everything” requiring less parking in downtown and revolutionizing transit in cities. He added, for example, that the city is lucky previous proposals for the Interstate 26 connector failed, because they left the city better suited to take advantage of more modern transportation technology. Bothwell also said Ashevilleans should have a referendum on raising more revenue for spending on transit improvements, and touted his volunteer efforts clearing sidewalks to make them more accessible.
Gwen Wisler, bike helmet in hand as she talked to voters before the forum. She declared “you’re my peeps,” talking about her use of and appreciation for multimodal transportation. Wisler noted her business experience (she was CEO of the Coleman company before moving into consulting work), saying that it will give her valuable insight into balancing priorities, as much as any particular policy goals . She did assert that she favored generally sticking with the city’s plans (such as its downtown and transit master plans) “because they’ve been developed over multiple Councils” versus jumping for “unexpected opportunities” that might come along.
Jonathan Wainscott, a West Asheville activist, took the most critical approach of all the candidates at the forum, asserting that the city of Asheville often forsakes infrastructure for spending on projects like the Asheville Art Museum, and that the focus needed to be on actual traffic and development challenges happening right now. He added that he walks many places, and hardly used his bicycle due to the difficulty of cycling safely throughout the area. He noted that he often cleared brush and debris from streets the city is supposed to maintain, and was somewhat frustrated, because “I already paid taxes for that” and that such services should come before economic incentives for companies and similar measures.
Council member Gordon Smith defended his record, saying he was elected in 2009 on improving multimodal transportation and “I feel like I’ve delivered.” However, he said he still wants more improvements made, including making it possible to bicycle on places like Tunnel Road and Patton Avenue without “a death wish.” Multiple times, Smith tied transit with goals of affordable housing, better-paying jobs, and access to healthier food. He also said Council was right to spend on “investment projects” like the art museum and Eagle Market Place due to the economic growth they’ll create but that in future years, revenue will go more towards increasing funding for transportation improvements.
Candidate Mike Lanning did not attend the forum.