Sweeten Creek Road doesn’t get many compliments these days.
“I’ve been here for nine years,” says Kaaren McNulty, who lives in the Park Avenue subdivision off Sweeten Creek, “and at first it didn’t seem to be a problem, but now, my God, the traffic is horrendous.”
Pat Deck of the Sweeten Creek Association of Neighborhoods says major accidents have sometimes frozen traffic on Sweeten Creek and adjacent roads for up to five hours. “If we have real emergencies, that’s a huge concern,” she says.
The N.C. Department of Transportation is in the early planning stages for widening the corridor from Rock Hill Road to Hendersonville Road. Current plans would widen the road to four lanes, divided by a median. The improvements would include a 10-foot multiuse path on one side and a 5-foot sidewalk on the other. The total proposed width of the roadway, including the adjacent paths, is about 100 feet. Construction is tentatively scheduled for fall 2022, and planners predict the total cost of construction and property acquisition could be $27.3 million.
Following criticism for its lack of advance notice about a planned widening of Merrimon Avenue earlier this year (see “Residents to DOT: Let us participate in Merrimon planning,” avl.mx/4nw), the NCDOT publicized a Nov. 13 community input session widely. Almost 500 people attended the drop-in event at Arden Presbyterian Church to get an early look at plans for the roadway and submit comments.
“The feedback is critical,” said NCDOT spokesperson David Uchiyama. At the meeting, staff showed attendees large maps that illustrated how adjacent businesses and residents would be affected if the road was widened east or west. Planners expect that the expansion will take place on the east or the west side of the road in different sections, depending on which direction would produce the least impact on abutting properties. “We want to limit the total general impact as much as possible,” Uchiyama said.
Planners are still in the concept phase of the design process, Uchiyama explained. Feedback from the public, which can be submitted through Thursday, Dec. 13, will help guide the final design.
John Pryately and Earl Holmes live in the Ballantree subdivision off Sweeten Creek Road. They were concerned that the final design for the roadway would not include a break in the median to allow cars on Ballantree Drive to make a left turn onto Sweeten Creek. In that case, those exiting Ballantree would have to turn right and make a U-turn farther down the road. “Can you imagine doing those U-turns during rush hour?” Pryately asked. “You won’t get out.”
The roadway outside their subdivision now has three lanes, with the middle lane being a turn lane. “It’s there so the residents have a chance to get out,” Holmes said. “Because you don’t have enough time when both lanes have no traffic to get all the way across if you’re going left.”
Uchiyama said after the meeting that although the locations haven’t been finalized yet, median breaks will be installed along the corridor. “The locations — other than existing locations with traffic signals — will be determined as the project progresses with input from agencies, stakeholders and the public,” he said.
A median, he said, follows guidelines established by the Federal Highway Administration: “The safety benefits are incredible, because the possibility of head-on and T-bone crashes are significantly reduced because the number of conflict points are significantly reduced.”
The road more traveled
Robert James lives on the southern end of Sweeten Creek Road. He’s been in Asheville for about three years but used to live in Atlanta. “The … solution to traffic [there] was to build more roads, build more lanes, lay more concrete and asphalt,” he said. “And that buys you a few years.” The upcoming work on Sweeten Creek, he predicted, will fix the problems for a short period of time. “I think 10-12 years from now people are going to be crying about Sweeten Creek Road again,” he said.
John Cowan, executive director of Givens Estates, wants the road to be more accessible and safer. “It’s amazing over the years the number of accidents that occur just because of the congestion,” he said. He likes the addition of multimodal transportation options, which are currently absent from Sweeten Creek Road.
Cowan said he’s been hearing about plans to widen Sweeten Creek Road for 20 years. “It’s a shame it didn’t occur 10 years ago … before a lot of the development on the road,” he said.
Having looked at the plans on Nov. 13, Cowan said he has more questions about how the alignment could affect Givens Estates if planners decide to expand toward the property. “It doesn’t appear that it will impact any of the residences,” he said. But the expansion could affect the entrance to the property, and there have been discussions about the cost of relocating Givens’ gatehouse.
Life in the bike lane
At the moment, Sweeten Creek does not have infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, says Asheville City Council member Vijay Kapoor. He says the city has endorsed the concept of a multiuse path in conversations with NCDOT, a design approach he believes could be cheaper and safer than installing bike lanes.
“We know people are probably not going to bike down Sweeten Creek Road in bike lanes, because it’s 45 mph; it’s not protected,” he says. “I’m not going to put my kid on that. I am a pretty experienced biker, and I would have hesitations about being on that.”
The Sweeten Creek Association of Neighborhoods, Deck says, has been active in the planning process from early on and submitted a series of recommendations to NCDOT, the city and the design team at Three Oaks Engineering, which is consulting on the project.
In the past, major road projects have caught Asheville residents by surprise, but Deck says her organization has worked to get in front of the issue.
“We’re trying to be proactive down here and work with everybody,” Deck says. “We don’t want to always be reactive.”
Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield says the city has also played a more active role in this project than in other local NCDOT projects. City officials have met with SCAN on several occasions, she says, to understand its desires for improvements to the road. “That normally doesn’t happen when it comes to DOT road projects,” she says. “The city does that kind of community engagement on its own projects.” Because Sweeten Creek is a state-owned road, the project will not be subject to approval by City Council.
Mayfield says NCDOT’s effort to incorporate public input and provide flexible options is encouraging and is not something she’s used to seeing from the agency.
“What normally happens at this stage of the process is [NCDOT] would come with their proposal and get their feedback on their proposal,” she says. “Here, they’re coming with options. … and that’s what’s so important.”
Kapoor says the process with Sweeten Creek Road contrasts with the way NCDOT proposed changes to Merrimon Avenue. Everyone learned from that process, he says.
“I think the city learned from it, I think the [NCDOT] learned from it,” Kapoor says. “I think there were a lot of us in the community who learned from it as well and said, ‘I don’t think that’s something we want to replicate at all.’”
Comment on the project
Members of the public can submit comments on the Sweeten Creek Road widening project through Thursday, Dec. 13.
Send comments to Three Oaks Engineering at U-2801A@threeoaksengineering.com, or by mail to STIP Project No. U-2801A, Three Oaks Engineering, 324 Blackwell St., Suite 1200, Durham, NC 27701.
For more information, contact NCDOT Project Manager Ahmad Al-Sharawneh at firstname.lastname@example.org or Consultant Project Manager Craig Young at email@example.com.