Traffic along many of Asheville’s major corridors has decreased in recent years, figures from the N.C. Department of Transportation reveal. DOT officials say that’s due to the Great Recession, but some transportation experts see it as evidence that the state agency overestimates the need for new highway projects.
“Some of us are skeptical of their future-year projections, not just for I-26 but for some of the other projects that are in the state transportation plan,” says retired transportation planner Bruce Emory, who’s been active in the Interstate 26 corridor project through the Asheville Design Center. “They recently came out with the Transportation Improvement Program, which includes projects like widening Amboy Road. If you look at the figures for Amboy Road, it doesn’t show any increase in recent years.”
The DOT relies on a combination of dispatched personnel and strategically placed electronic counters to calculate average daily traffic counts. Figures from 1998 and 2012 (the most recent year available) show significant decreases along some of Asheville’s primary corridors.
Between those two years, the number of vehicles using Merrimon Avenue near Orange Street declined from 26,000 to 22,000 a day. Likewise, Haywood Road at Beverly Road West dropped from 11,000 to 8,700; Charlotte Street at Interstate 240 declined from 27,000 to 20,000; and Tunnel Road near White Pine Drive dropped from 24,000 to 17,000, according to DOT figures (see chart).
Other roadways experienced traffic increases over the 14-year span. Broadway Street at Cauble Street increased from 8,000 to 8,900; I-240 at the Bowen Bridge rose from 92,000 to 99,000; Sweeten Creek Road at West Chapel Road jumped from 16,000 to 26,000; and the Charlotte Highway at the Blue Ridge Parkway went from 22,000 to 26,000.
Recession or conjecture?
Across North Carolina, traffic has generally decreased in recent years, says DOT Division Traffic Engineer Anna Henderson. “I have been advised by our transportation branch that due to the recession and, most likely, gas prices, statewide there was a decrease in traffic volumes between 2008 and 2012 in most areas,” she explains.
But the 2013 data for interstates in Buncombe County, notes Henderson, shows increases at most count locations, which she attributes to an improving economy.
Asheville-based urban planner Don Kostelec takes a somewhat different view. “If you look at North Carolina overall over the last seven or eight years, there actually have been years when the miles driven in the state has decreased,” he says. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, the growth rates in driving would have been on the order of 5 to 7 percent a year. They are now down to 1 or 2 percent a year and, in some areas, just negative growth rates.”
And while traffic figures may be affected by development along particular corridors, says Kostelec, tracking development patterns won’t necessarily predict where traffic volume will grow.
“A big grocery store or Wal-Mart goes in and you expect the numbers to boom, and they really don’t,” he points out. “Then on other corridors where there’s nothing really happening, you see [the figures] go up. So there’s not as much science to it as we’d like to believe.”
Local road projects planned
The state Board of Transportation recently approved a long-range plan that includes a number of projects in the Asheville area, including widening I-26 from Woodfin to Fletcher, adding lanes to Sweeten Creek Road between Rock Hill Road and Hendersonville Road, widening Leicester Highway from Newfound Road to Gilbert Road, and adding lanes to Brevard Road from Long Shoals Road to the Parkway.
Kostelec and others, however, question whether such projects are worthwhile. The idea that widening highways relieves congestion is a big misconception, he maintains.
“If we could widen roads to fix congestion, then Atlanta or L.A. would have shown us how to do that,” argues Kostelec. “Even in Raleigh and Charlotte, where they’ve put a ton of investment into highway widening, the benefits are very short-lived. So it’s a big policy struggle for regions like Asheville, where we think we have traffic congestion.”
Paul Black, director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, says that while the down economy did contribute to lower traffic counts in some areas, there are also other factors. The MPO is responsible for developing the local Transportation Improvement Program, which feeds into the statewide plan.
“Millennials and boomers who are nearing retirement age are driving less,” he says, adding that due to a drop in federal and state transportation funding, “It’s sort of good news. But there’s also ambient growth: Folks are still moving here.”
And meanwhile, argues Black, traffic congestion is not necessarily bad. Places with successful, vibrant economies tend to have more traffic and congestion, he notes.
A positive sign?
“It kind of goes hand in hand,” Black maintains. “The question isn’t so much is there traffic but is there a healthy level of congestion — and where is that break point to where it starts to become unhealthy? Nobody wants to sit in traffic. But if you think about it like a grocery store, you don’t want to necessarily have all of the registers open all the time. It’s not a good investment.”
Due to rapid growth in southern Buncombe County and northern Henderson County, plus more through traffic coming from South Carolina, I-26 south of Interstate 40 is one corridor that both DOT planners and Black believe is outgrowing its capacity. There are also more localized impacts, such as the afternoon backups on Leicester Highway as drivers try to turn onto Patton Avenue. Bowen Bridge over the French Broad River also sees routine backups.
“We do see some places that we’re worried about breaking down in the near future. There’s additional pressure,” says Black. “But as these corridors get more and more congested, people start making travel decisions to avoid peak times or use alternate routes. There’s a point where the corridors will break down; people are smart creatures, and they make those travel decisions in a conscious way.
“Some of the older corridors, like Merrimon or Biltmore or Patton Avenue, especially in the downtown area, have been relatively stable. They sort of hit their capacity, and again, people are making those adjustments around the corridor.”
But the local terrain creates special complications for the Asheville area, notes Black, because both the interstates and the older highways they mostly parallel tend to follow rivers that cut through the mountains.
“Everything funnels into these river corridors, so it doesn’t take much to lock up movement in those places if there’s a wreck,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of second or third or fourth options.”
Black believes the city of Asheville is doing a good job of using zoning that supports a mix of commercial and residential uses to reduce traffic by enhancing walkability.
“I’m looking at what’s going on in the River Arts District with that form-based zoning,” he says. “You want to have enough customers to keep a restaurant open, but you don’t necessarily want to create a sea of parking. How do you do that? Well, you got to get enough people within walking distance to help support that restaurant. In Asheville there’s good urban fabric.”
Unlike the DOT, the city of Asheville, which is responsible for maintaining smaller roadways, doesn’t perform regular traffic counts. Instead, says city traffic engineer Jeff Moore, Asheville conducts targeted counts, based on residents’ concerns, to determine whether a particular street qualifies for such traffic-calming measures as speed humps and traffic islands.
Still, Moore says traffic on residential streets has increased.
“Sometimes as DOT roads become a little more crowded, people look for shortcuts. They go through residential areas, and the volumes aren’t so much the issue as the speeds [see sidebar]. We have seen volumes grow. Asheville is very popular; lots of people love to come here.”