Citizen John Gordon, who could lose his home depending on the choice of routes, brought a big map. He proposed drawing the connector west of the city to make an urban loop and lower the acreage of established communities to be bulldozed. It made perfect sense, but Councilwoman Julie Mayfield explained the city fathers in the late 1980s and early 1990s demanded that the route go through the city. “In light of the current consternation, is it worth revisiting?” asked Gordon. In a follow-up email, Mayfield explained the loop would merely shift the problem of land acquisition to the people of Leicester, encourage sprawl, waste twenty years and millions of dollars of DOT work, and only further delay improvements.
Professionals with flair for urban planning and multimodal transportation, including Joe Minicozzi, Don Kostelec, and Alan McGuinn, offered to continue to provide free or reduced services to help come up with a better design than what the DOT was offering. Other speakers represented groups or provided survey responses to indicate the masses do not want eight lanes, and they believe the DOT is overbuilding.
Mayfield, assuming a role normally reserved for city staff, had been leading the council discussion with the greatest of ease and expertise. She started with some history, saying the project was first proposed in the 1980s; designs came to light in the 1990s. The city responded with a local community coordinating committee, under the leadership of local icons like Lou Bissette and Brownie Newman. The group advocated for a buildout that would, among other things, have low-impact, enhance neighborhood connectivity, separate local and business traffic now carried by I-240 in West Asheville, and convert Patton Avenue into a downtown gateway.
In the 2000s, the DOT caught a lot of flak from Ashevillians and developed Alternative 4 in response. In 2008, the first draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) was presented to the public. Through the Asheville Design Center, headed by McGuinn, the community responded with Alternative 4b, which was praised as a hallmark of acting on public input. It was so well-done, the DOT even threw it into the mix of options up for consideration. That feat, Mayfield believed, was unprecedented.
But thanks to local indecision and stall tactics, the project fell off the state’s short list for funding, only to receive new life from the lobbying efforts of former Mayor Terry Bellamy. This year, the DOT came back with a second DEIC, which, unlike the first, Mayfield felt disclosed the “full range of community impacts.” The DOT was taking public comment on the draft, and this was to be the last city council meeting before the deadline. Council and staff had drafted statements to send to the DOT, and they promised to forward any written statements they received from community members as well. Mayfield indicated it would not be wise for the city to try to stop the DOT because safety hazards are in need of mitigation, and weighing in allows the city to lobby for its vision. Unfortunately, she articulated, the DOT wants a road for drive-through traffic, and the city wants a road that contributes to the local economy and sense of place.
By way of the resolution, council lent its support for Alternative 4 or 4B for Section B for its sensitivity toward council’s strategic goals, while acknowledging it was a work in progress. Alternative F1 was the favorite for Section C, as it was the lowest-cost, minimal-impact proposal to date. Council believed this option, too, had room for improvement.
Overall, council was going to ask the DOT to minimize the footprint of the connector inasmuch as its engineers could allow as safe and with a functional Level of Service. Special consideration was to be given to non-motorized forms of transportation. The board also called for respect for municipal upgrades underway, like the RADTIP project. As Councilman Cecil Bothwell indicated later in the meeting, the city didn’t want to plant street trees just to rip them up. The resolution further called for a collaborative working group to partner hand-in-hand and face-to-face with the DOT as the process unfolds.
Amending the first published draft of the resolution, Mayfield asked if council would support adding for consideration constituent requests including reducing imposition into Hillcrest, Montford, and Riverside Cemetery to the north, and Emma and the Burton Street Community in West Asheville; making Patton Avenue a truly multimodal, Complete Streets project; consulting up-to-date maps, as the DOT’s were made in 2010; and turning the Haywood Road bridge into something of a Ponte Vecchio, with businesses atop the span. Before the resolution was adopted unanimously, Bothwell said putting up toll booths with congestion pricing for rush hour would show very quickly, “we don’t have a problem here at all.”
Councilman Gordon Smith, praised Mayfield’s aural presentation before the DOT board. Duke, said Smith, had “really turned a corner with this community.” It had “really made some behavioral changes.” It is going to become a good partner with the city, as evidenced by its abandonment of coal in lieu of solar power, its ditching of a project that would draw transmission lines from South Carolina into the city, and deep-sixing plans for a substation next to a school. Mayfield, said Smith, inserted “NC DOT” instead of “Duke” and “transportation” instead of “energy” into a letter to show what a glowing report council could give should the department “decide to come on as a partner with this community.”
Mayfield only stumbled when Smith asked why, if Section C and Section B were to be eight lanes; it made any sense for Section A, which is between the two, to be six lanes. “It’s a good question, and we’re going to be talking about that,” she said.