Merrimon Avenue is about to go on a diet. The plan, approved May 24 by a 6-1 vote of Asheville City Council, would slim down the road from four lanes of vehicle traffic to three. And just like a food-based New Year’s resolution, it brings hope for a healthier lifestyle — as well as questions about feasibility and unforeseen consequences.
According to a presentation by Ken Putnam, the city’s transportation director, the proposal is designed “to improve safety and provide options for all multimodal users” such as pedestrians and bicyclists. While the N.C. Department of Transportation had planned in 2018 to widen Merrimon to five lanes, Council members at the time rejected that plan and asked for alternatives more in line with the city’s goals. The new plan would reduce the section of the avenue between Midland Road and W.T. Weaver Boulevard from its current four-lane, two-way configuration to one lane in each direction, along with a center turn lane and bicycle lanes.
The conversion is part of a larger Merrimon resurfacing project scheduled by NCDOT. The total anticipated cost of that work, slated for completion by the end of the year, is $2.5 million. Asheville will contribute $275,000 toward the road diet, and if safety issues are found with the new configuration, the city could choose to reverse the conversion for a maximum cost of $300,000.
According to a staff report, the city gathered substantial input on the project through a Feb. 28 public meeting and a survey conducted in February and March. Over 300 people attended the meeting, with more than 3,000 filling out the survey. Of survey respondents, 59% supported the project; during the May 24 meeting, public comment on the issue was split, with five people speaking out against the conversion and four voicing support.
Council member Sandra Kilgore, the lone vote against the road diet, questioned the level of public support for the project. She claimed, without providing evidence, that the “majority of those [survey] participants are not local” and said most attendees at the February meeting were opposed. Kilgore also raised concerns about the project’s overall cost to the city and the potential for increased accidents if the new road configuration draws more cyclists.
Meanwhile, Mayor Esther Mainheimer, who said she had lived in North Asheville since 1988 and regularly commutes downtown, was in favor of the road diet. She emphasized that her backing was not because of the increased accessibility to cyclists the new configuration would create, but instead because of overall safety concerns for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.
“If bikers are able to use this corridor safely, that is a great benefit. But for me, this is a safety issue,” Manheimer said. “The number of accidents on this section of Merrimon is very high when compared to similar roads.”
A city website on the project cites NCDOT data showing that Merrimon has experienced 50% more crashes over the past 10 years compared with similar roads across the state. Of those crashes, nearly a quarter have caused an injury.
“I have a neighbor whose son killed a pedestrian accidentally in a very early morning collision right in front of Avenue M,” Manheimer continued. “We have a duty to make this road safer for our community. And it is unacceptable, the level of danger surrounding this road right now.”
An FAQ prepared by the NCDOT states a study of the 2019 Charlotte Street road diet found the project had reduced motorist speeds, increased bike volume and reduced the number of motorist crashes with minimal increases in vehicle travel time. However, the NCDOT “does not consider [Charlotte Street] a fair comparison to Merrimon Avenue, given the difference in motorist volume and driveway density between the two corridors.”
In other news
Council members approved a conditional zoning and a nearly $753,000 land use incentive grant for the Reed Creek mixed use development project. According to a staff report, the project will contain 49 residential units, 10 of which will be available to those earning at or below 60% of the area median income ($31,575 for an individual or $45,300 for a family of four). Two units will be available for those earning at or below 80% AMI; all affordable units will be guaranteed for a minimum of 30 years.
Council member Gwen Wisler opposed the incentive grant, saying that while she supported the project, the developer should receive a smaller grant due to an existing deed restriction. Council member Kim Roney opposed the conditional zoning because it included a reduction in the number of trees that were required to be planted or preserved on the property.