Merrimon ‘road diet’ to move forward after Council approval

Merrimon Avenue road diet schematic
LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE: The Merrimon Avenue road diet will 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. Courtesy of the city of Asheville

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.

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9 thoughts on “Merrimon ‘road diet’ to move forward after Council approval

  1. Lee

    “….She claimed, without providing evidence, that the “majority of those [survey] participants are not local” – Kilgore is the only one who had any common sense on the survey. A survey gets stood up with only a couple of weeks to fill out, and gets 3000+ responses? And there’s no requirement for addresses? How hard is it to believe the survey was gamed to deliver the desired results? Once again, the imperial Council decides what they want, creates data to “back it up” and calls out the dogs to vilify anyone who doesn’t fall into line.

  2. Robert

    The survey was most surely gamed by MountainTrue and Asheville on Bikes representatives. I am all for bike lanes and traffic calming (and would like nothing more than a city with fewer cars and more walking/biking options), but my fear is that cycling proponents blindly/misleadingly compared Merrimon Ave to streets (such as Charlotte St.) where road diets were successful when they should have also very closely examined streets where 4-3 conversions failed. Does Merrimon (a thru-road with many cuts and much neighboring housing development on the horizon) have more in common with the former or the latter? I’d rather spend 30K now investigating the truth/preparing for pitfalls instead of shelling out 300K later on…but I’m wiser and more frugal than most.

  3. Mike Rains

    All very good points above.

    I have done more than a few hours of research on road diets, limitations, successes, etc. and am pretty sure we’ll be spending the $300K to put the road back to 4 lanes.

    First, no one seems to have addressed bus traffic and delivery trucks. Buses run every hour and without turnouts, there are going to be a lot of very frustrated drivers caught behind the bus the entire length of the diet. Or attempting a dangerous cut around in the middle lane.

    Second, there are a few “pinch points” along this stretch where left turning from both directions is going to be problematic in a single center turning lane. Consider the Ace Hardware, Wells Fargo, ABC and other nearby lots/streets. There isn’t enough room in the middle lane for all of these opposite turns.

    Third, the inclusion of bike lanes while not only wishful/foolish thinking, eats up another 10′ (5′ bike lanes each side) of an already very narrow 4 lane roadway. That additional width would improve vehicle safety margins when you consider that large trucks and buses are almost 10′ wide themselves and the diet vehicle lane design is 10″. Also, a well designed road diet often has to create an ‘extra lane’ here and there to accommodate certain needs. That design option will be non existent with the bike lanes.

    Fourth, I’m afraid this is going to be such a big bust that lots of spillover traffic is going to flow towards Kimberly and then onto Charlotte. Gracelyn, Edgewood and Farrwood are going to see those increased cut throughs as well. That cut through traffic will be comprised of the usual impatience drivers that seem to ignore reasonable speed limits and “rush up to stop” in most cases. In addition, Kimberly and Charlotte are THE best/safest bike lanes around, so this extra cut through will make that bike route less safe, while no one will be using Merrimon for bike travel. Sad irony.

    Finally, while I am in favor of road diet designs when they are properly designed and thought out, it is clear that has not happened prior to this vote. And all the “brouhaha” about public input is just that. I will hazard a guess that 95% of the input was from people that hadn’t done any research or review of road diet designs and limitations.

    The fact that the City agreed to provide a $300,000 backup to put the road back to the original design should it fail tells us that the proper level of design review HAD NOT BEEN DONE, before the Council vote. Knowing a bit about the often dysfunctional relationship between Asheville and NCDOT I would hazard a guess that NCDOT staff is snickering (laughing?) behind the scenes concerning this decision by Asheville Council and how it was formed.

    • Robert

      Exactly! I pointed out many of those very concerns in written correspondence with staff members of MountainTrue and members of Asheville on Bikes in hopes that there would be more study before making this commitment. I wish that everyone who has adamantly stated that they are ‘for’ the 4-3 conversion ‘no matter what’ would commit to paying the 300k out of their pooled resources if it does fail. On the other hand, if gas prices rise to $10/gallon, we could have 6 bike lanes and fewer tourists!

  4. Taxpayer

    The mayor embarrassed herself by being rude and condescending to Ms. Kilgore who was fairly representing the concerns of the people who elected her to council. Someone needs to ‘fess up that this was a done deal before the open house was even held. Asheville leadership and transparency don’t belong in the same sentence.

  5. rwd

    I wonder what type/structure will the barrier be, that is to be placed between the roadway and the bike path ? ? Unless it is a 2-3 foot high concrete barrier, like the ones you see along I-26…there are going to be many near accidents or accidents between the two lanes. If the planners, in their infinite wisdom decide to use “PAINT” or those low “Rubber Bumpers” that have been placed along Coxe AVE…they need to be shot !!

  6. Just say no to AOB

    When stupidity reins. We already how two corridors for bikes and Walkers. Via Charlotte St and Broadway. Can’t wait to see the privileged white folks in spandex on their 4k bikes riding down Merrimon. Just like you see on Charlotte St. AOB is a tax wasting entity that has way to much voice with city council. But when you have a Mayor like Eshter, we’re going to continue to make stupid decisions that only affect .1% of the population positively. Just like in every other thing they do.

    • MV

      Esther, AOB, and MountainTrue should have to pay the 300k out of their own pockets if/when it fails. They are all equally negligent. Much more study should have been done.

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