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Council Fights Those Pesky Automobiles

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By Leslee Kulba- Interim Assistant City Manager Jade Dundas informed members of council the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority wished to award the city $4.6 million. The funds, which are collected from the local room tax, would be used to complete items that had been removed from the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Plan. The scope of the $54 million project had to be scaled back last June after bids came in $26 million over estimates. The TDA had already invested $2.5 million in the RADTIP on top of the federal government’s $14 million.

The city had to act fast in order to preserve funding, and it cut standalone projects like greenways as well as a Complete Streets program for Lyman Street. The new TDA funding will be used to bring to fruition the watercolor renderings of a Lyman Street with a redesigned roadway with parking and bulb-outs, protected bike lanes, separate sidewalks, and green streetscaping. The TDA funds will allow the city to tear the road up once instead of disrupting traffic in phases as money becomes available. Had the funding not become available, construction of the Lyman Street improvements, like the greenways, would be rolled into future years.

$4.6 million is the amount removed from the construction contract for the project. Although prices have increased, the subcontractors and their suppliers were able hold prices as they were at the time of the bid. Dundas preferred to merely reinsert the Lyman Street project in the RADTIP, as rebidding would not guarantee prices, and working with multiple parties would likely introduce scheduling conflicts and delays.

Julie Mayfield spoke as council’s liaison to the TDA. She offered thanks, noting the city did not ask for the money. The TDA had roughly that amount “left over,” and chose to award it to the RADTIP because the authority had already invested so much in the project. Mayfield said the latest gift brings TDA investment in city projects well over $23 million, representing 80-85% of its awards and therefore dispelling the myth that the TDA does nothing to benefit the city. Council voted unanimously in favor of the appurtenant measures.

In a second transportation discussion, Ken Putnam, director of the city’s Transportation Department updated council on yet another round of redesign for the I-26 Connector. The regular traffic jams of thousands of cars burning carbon as they idle have been in a holding pattern since the DOT opened a study on alleviating the bottlenecks in 1989. Environmentalists protested lane expansion, arguing easy driving encourages motorism. The DOT drew up five proposals with two or three alternatives for a few. The city hired its own consultants to plan for more pedways in lieu of motorways.

It seemed the DOT was going to move forward with Alternative 4B, a very low-impact project that considered input from the Asheville Design Center – but apparently not. Putnam said the city was now working with Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants in Chicago. The firm is internationally-recognized for integrating multimodal dimensions into traffic plans. Its founder, Schwartz, got his training wheels with twenty years’ experience in the New York City DOT.

Putnam announced the newly-contracted consultant was beginning to hold stakeholder meetings and converse with the DOT. A major focus will be greenways and “aesthetics betterments.” Council knew the drill. This was leading to the development of one of those proverbial wish lists that outstrip resources. Mayfield said she had seen some preliminary proposals, and they were heartening. One highlight was they would reclaim Patton Avenue as a community street, something Alternative 4B did not do.

A third transportation discussion was added to the agenda. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler was incensed. At a public forum one week prior, the NCDOT had unveiled plans for improvements to Merrimon Avenue up by UNC Asheville. Several members of council attended and were astonished to see the department had proceeded with absolutely no input from city staff or members of the community. They further paid no heed to any of the many plans the city has for multimodal transportation. Wisler described the proposal as having a big footprint and taking away from neighborhoods to “allow more car action.” She added she heard no support for the proposed changes from anybody at the meeting.

Wisler then requested support from her peers to direct city staff to work with the DOT to get the upgrades aligned with existing city plans. Furthermore, she asked that a resolution be drafted to express council’s disappointment and call for the DOT to amend its policies and procedures to ensure city leadership is never excluded from the planning process going forward.

Mayor Esther Manheimer encouraged disgruntled parties to contact the DOT as well as the city. Comments must be submitted by January 29, and the DOT will accept the city’s resolution, to be adopted February 13.

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