It’s not your imagination: Commuting in the Asheville area is worse than ever.
As skyrocketing housing prices have pushed more city residents into neighboring areas, the number of drivers entering Asheville each day on busy interstates and crowded secondary roads has grown dramatically.
“Asheville is still very much the employment center of the region, and it’s increasingly reliant on workers coming in from outside of Asheville,” says Tristan Winkler, director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization. “The vast majority of those workers are driving, and very likely driving by themselves.”
Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau tells the story. From 2002-19, the number of people who both lived and worked in Asheville increased slightly, from about 21,000 to approximately 23,000. But the number of people commuting from outside Asheville to work in the city soared, from roughly 46,000 to about 71,000.
“After all these years, it is no longer a relaxing drive to work or back home,” says Earleen Owens, who has been commuting to her Asheville makeup business from her home between Sylva and Franklin since 2013. “I am moving my office closer to home, as I don’t believe spending 2 1/2 hours a day on the road is healthy for me.”
Winkler says changes in commuting trends are particularly apparent in Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties, as well as in fast-growing Buncombe County communities like Fairview and Arden.
For example, about 17% of Henderson County residents worked in Buncombe County in 2000. By 2019, that percentage had increased to 28%. Many of those commuters are driving from Mills River and Fletcher in the northern part of the county, Winkler says.
Increased traffic has taken a toll on Interstate 26, the major route connecting Henderson and Buncombe counties, and Interstate 40, which connects Haywood and Buncombe. But it has also has put more stress on some of the area’s bigger surface streets, Winkler says, including state highways 191, 19 and 23; Hendersonville Road; Asheville Highway (U.S. Route 25); and Sweeten Creek Road.
While a massive widening project of I-26 south of Asheville is underway, and some smaller projects are moving ahead, other work meant to relieve traffic congestion has been put on the back burner due to supply shortages and spiraling costs for labor and material.
“It’s frustrating to know the roads will never keep up with growth,” says Susan Lilly, who commutes to Western North Carolina Community Health Services in Asheville from Mills River. “Asheville keeps getting more apartments, more hotels, but there doesn’t seem to be any thought about the roads being unable to accommodate it all.”
Traffic planners and state Department of Transportation officials, however, say a lot of consideration has been put into how to deal with increased traffic.
The most obvious example is the $534 million I-26 widening project, which began in October 2019 and recently hit its halfway point. Work is on target for completion by April 2024, says Steve Cannon, a project development engineer with NCDOT’s Asheville office.
The widening is happening along an 18-mile stretch between the Brevard Road interchange in Buncombe County and Four Seasons Boulevard in Hendersonville. “The old road was built back in the ’60s and ’70s and was past its useful life as far as the volume it was designed to handle at the time,” Cannon says. “Also, the condition of the road was just not in great shape. This addresses that as well, with a new road surface that should last for many years.”
When the work is done, the stretch from Brevard Road (Exit 1B) south to U.S. 25 (Exit 44) will be four lanes in both directions, while the portion from that point south to the U.S. 64/Four Seasons Boulevard exits (Exits 49A and 49B) will be three lanes in both directions. Future plans call for widening the interstate to three lanes in both directions all the way to the U.S. 25 connector to Greenville, S.C. (Exit 54), but the project currently has no funding and won’t begin any earlier than 2033.
While increased capacity on I-26 will help relieve congestion and bottlenecks in the short term, Winkler says, that smoother sailing could ultimately encourage even more cars to use the road, a concept known as induced demand. “We’re still a growing region, and we’re still facing increasing freight and other traffic that utilizes 26,” he points out.
How long will it be until more traffic means I-26 needs to be expanded again? Cannon says the answer depends on the economic growth of the area and technological advances such as self-driving cars, although the NCDOT expects the project to meet demand for at least 20 years.
Cannon also expects work on the I-26 Connector project to get underway within the next two years. The biggest chunk of that project will involve building the interstate on a new location from the Haywood Road interchange north across the French Broad River, tying into U.S. 19/23/70 south of Broadway.
“And of course that’d be a big, big improvement to the bottlenecks we see in that area,” Cannon says.
Other pain points for WNC drivers are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Earlier this year, NCDOT staff removed about $1.2 billion in regional transportation projects from a draft of the 2024-33 State Transportation Improvement Program, a long-term schedule for North Carolina’s highway and other projects. A final draft is due later this year, but officials don’t expect any major projects to be added back.
“We’re spending the same amount of money in the area, but our money’s not going as far as it used to due to runaway costs in labor and materials,” Cannon says. Supply shortages and high prices have affected steel, concrete, guardrails, pipes and other project inputs.
A delay in plans to widen a 16-mile stretch of I-40 is particularly bad news for those commuting from Waynesville or Canton and other growing communities west of Asheville. The project would expand the interstate to three lanes both ways from exit 27 in Haywood County to Exit 44 in Buncombe County. The STIP originally called for construction on the first phase to start in 2029.
“Unfortunately, it looks like we’re going to be at least 2033 or later to move into right-of-way acquisition and construction,” Cannon says of the project. “But we do have something on the books that will come eventually.”
Other delayed work includes the so-called Future I-26 project, which would widen the interstate to three lanes in both directions north of the city from Exit 25 at UNC Asheville to U.S. 25 north/US 70 near Weaverville. Based on the current STIP, design work could be completed by 2033, but construction would not begin before that. Earlier plans for the $200 million project had construction getting under way in 2030.
Plans to widen a 5.4-mile stretch of Sweeten Creek Road (U.S. 25A) in Asheville from two lanes into a four-lane divided roadway from Hendersonville Road (U.S. 25) to Rock Hill Road are also on hold. While design work has been funded for the $195.3 million project, actual construction has been moved to 2033 or beyond in the newest STIP. Earlier plans would have started construction in 2027.
Winkler hopes ultimately some of the region’s traffic woes can be addressed by increasing public transit options. Buncombe County and Asheville already are coordinating more than in the past on such projects as the Buncombe County Greenways and Trails Master Plan, he says.
The Land of Sky Regional Council also runs a Transportation Demand Management program, Winkler continues, which helps coordinate vanpools and encourages more people to carpool or use other modes of transportation. The program’s work includes Strive Beyond, Go Mountain Commuting and a new van pool effort in collaboration with the Friends of Land of Sky Regional Council and Recovery to Work program.
In the meantime, people like Whitney Albury will continue to deal with the ups and downs of the area’s traffic situation.
“It’s not terrible,” says Albury, who’s been commuting to Buncombe County from Waynesville for the past nine years. “It’s not the best, but it’s also not like trying to commute to a job in, say, Atlanta or LA.”
Still, she admits: “At least once a day since 2013, I’ve said life would be so much easier if I lived in Asheville.”