Moving with the times

The Asheville and Hendersonville metropolitan areas are growing rapidly, and many residents are concerned about how we can maintain our quality of life while we grow. Good transportation planning is key to sensible growth and land use.

But though the local road network is well established, the professional advisers who determine the highways and transit options for the Asheville area often live and work in the flatlands of the Research Triangle or Charlotte. In the 1980s, for example, an out-of-touch Department of Transportation in Raleigh decided to route an interstate highway right through, rather than around, the city of Asheville. Many people still remember the bitter debate over the Beaucatcher Cut.

The federal policy of subsidizing automobiles and highways has ground along inexorably for 50-plus years now; as a result, most ground travel in the United States is done in cars, often carrying only a single passenger. This, in turn, leads to transportation nightmares like Atlanta. Do we want Asheville and Hendersonville to suffer the same fate? As a local DOT engineer said to me, “We realize now we cannot build our way out of this situation with more and wider roads.”

Instead, we need creative and innovative approaches to meet our transportation needs. That includes providing options for getting people where they need to go without relying on a mostly empty automobile. So far, however, all we’ve seen from Raleigh is efforts to coordinate regional transit and consolidate county human-service-van programs. These are necessary steps, but they should have been doing these things all along.

And though we’ve now moved into the 21st century, our regional transportation planning has not kept up. Leadership on this issue must come from within our region; we need a plan for moving people in and around our area that provides the maximum number of environmentally friendly, energy-efficient options consistent with the numbers of people being moved per day.

Two local agencies — the Land-of-Sky Regional Council and the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization — have each hired one new staffer to begin considering alternatives to the one-person-per-vehicle model. But while we should applaud the belated recognition that something different must be done, we’re still working within the old paradigm, which no longer fits. And all indications are that the Band-Aid solutions that will be offered by both state and local agencies will be too little, too late.

Historically, urban areas have waited until their traffic situation was in crisis to create a regional transportation authority and have stalled for years after the need became apparent before building a fixed-rail system. Isn’t it time we got ahead of the curve?

Miriam Perry, the director of the DOT’s Public Transportation Division, has both the authority and the budget to fund a meaningful regional transportation study that would help us determine what we need to do to avoid Atlanta-style traffic jams. This study could explore different modes of transportation, consider what type of authority is needed, and assess technological innovations that can help move people more efficiently, such as centralized dispatch and a “no cash on board” system. It could also look at the rights of way at interstate intersections to determine where car-pooling lots could be strategically placed, linked with small buses, vans and taxis coordinated to ferry passengers from downtown Asheville and other urban centers.

Many local and regional organizations have called for a comprehensive regional transportation study. I encourage all concerned area residents to contact Ms. Perry (see box) and urge her to undertake this much-needed step toward keeping Asheville and Hendersonville the wonderful places to live that they are today.

[Former N.C. DOT transportation consultant Robert Eidus lives in Asheville.]

On the DOT…

Here’s how you can weigh in with the DOT:

• Write to Miriam Perry, the director of the DOT’s Public Transportation Division, at 1550 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1550.

• Tom Herman, who’s in charge of the federally funded human-service vans and is the new transit person in the mountains, can be reached at (828) 251-6708.

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