Asheville – The Asheville City Council meeting was moving along at a good clip until Capital Projects Director Jade Dundas asked if there were any questions. He had mentioned that the city was working on over 35 projects with budgets of over $100,000, plus a lot of smaller projects and ongoing maintenance. He then proceeded to highlight four of the major projects. The first was the bike lanes for College Street and Patton Avenue, for which the city will begin accepting bids this month. Dundas explained that this initiative would reroute the streets to create loading zones and bike paths. He said back in April and May, public engagement in the design process had been extensive.
Among the other highlighted projects was the public safety station on Broadway. It would be the first station the city has built since 2007. As such, it was described as equitable, having multiple shower and restroom facilities to accommodate different genders. Another was the Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr. Southside Center. With general obligation bond funding, it was getting upfitted with a new gym, meeting rooms, restrooms, changing rooms, basketball courts, a swimming pool, parking, sidewalks, solar panels, a rain garden, landscaping, lighting, a picnic area with tables, a toddler play zone, and a lounge deck. Lastly, funded 80% with Metropolitan Planning Organization proceeds, a mile extension of the French Broad River Greenway West is now complete. The pavement officially connects Dog Park with the New Belgium Brewery.
It would have been a simple, 10-minute presentation, except Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore did have questions. She spoke hesitatingly, wanting to call attention to a problem without pointing any fingers. She said she loved bicycling as a great recreational activity and sport, but congested roads in the central business district were not the place for bike lanes. She said she opposed the bike lanes on Merrimon Avenue for the same reasons. Then, according to Kilgore, when the Biltmore Avenue bike lanes were proposed, a “member of council whose business was affected by it … was impacted by it, so she understood the concern. So, when she spoke with people in the neighborhood that were affected, of course, we ended up putting that on pause.” Kilgore said that, despite the city’s claims of extensive outreach, a lot of business owners that would be directly impacted by the College/Patton bike lanes told her they had never been informed about the proposal. She said she could give names, and she later did.
Kilgore said the city was “looking at the special interest group’s needs and concerns as opposed to the city as a whole.” It seemed to her the city could do more to help those who can’t help themselves by improving pedestrian infrastructure, especially with ADA adaptations. That would check boxes for the council’s multimodal and equity priorities. Kilgore said she wasn’t saying bike lanes would never make sense, but addressing pedestrian needs would answer to the needs of the here and now rather than some future day when more people use bicycles for commuting and business activity.
In sum, she found the concept of bike lanes on narrow, high-traffic business corridors flustering. “Every time I see it… it gets to me,” she said. “I think we’re just headed for a perfect storm.”
“I hear you,” said Councilwoman Kim Roney. She said there was a time when Asheville had the second-best trolley system in the country. Now it has the second-highest rate of pedestrian and bicycle accidents in the state. That, she said, was good neither for business nor for tourism. Roney said the council had to make the roads work for all people, and slowing automobile traffic makes the roads safer for drivers as well as other users.
Kilgore responded that locals weren’t going downtown already, and the bike lanes would only add to traffic congestion, which is getting worse already with population growth. She said she thought the council was, “providing a lifestyle for a set amount of people,” namely, those who already live in the central business district and those who can afford to vacation in Asheville. This, she said, was isolating people.
Mayor Esther Manheimer interrupted to clarify that Dundas’ presentation was merely an update for the council. They would get to vote, on a future consent agenda, on whether to accept or reject the winning bidder. Councilwoman Gwen Wisler added that the council had approved the bike lanes with their approval of the city’s capital improvement plan when they approved the budget, like they do every year. “I clearly respect where you are and that you disagree with it,” said Wisler; “however, I really question our process if we’re going to open this back up after all the public engagement and the fact that we voted on this.”
Councilwoman Sage Turner asked for the opportunity to “correct” Kilgore’s “insinuation.” She was the anonymous councilwoman referenced, and she said her business did not oppose the bike lanes because it would not have been impacted. She did, however, support hearing more from businesses that were going to be impacted. Secondly, she asked for clarification on why the Merrimon Avenue bike lanes came before the council for a vote, the College/Patton bike lanes were approved via the budget adoption, and the Biltmore Avenue bike lanes didn’t come before the council at all. Manheimer explained that the Merrimon bike lanes represented a potential partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), the College/Patton project was fully under the council’s purview as part of the budget, and the Biltmore Avenue lanes were part of a DOT project that now has to be funded by the city because it pulled out at the last minute. Manheimer acknowledged that projects coming from so many approaches can make it difficult to know when to apply the brakes.
Kilgore returned to her point of representatives from businesses that would be directly affected by the bike lanes on Biltmore and Merrimon telling her they, “knew nothing about” the proposals. “We’re saying we’ve done it [outreach], and they’re saying we haven’t.”
To this, City Manager Debra Campbell replied, “Staff is willing to go back out and have some additional public outreach, but I do want you all to understand that you have adopted a policy of multimodal transportation and complete streets. Public right of way should be accessible to all users, and what we heard is that this evolution our community is going through [is] kind of like growing pains in adapting to the ability for all users to have access. We think – not we think, we feel – that just about every community in this country is moving toward a multimodal approach to enable us to literally grow into the future in terms of emission reductions. I mean, there are a number of reasons why we ought to be doing this, and yes, it gets uncomfortable. It gets a little concerning when businesses cannot see that vision today, but we are willing to explain what the vision is and how we’re going to manage parking and loading and all of that.”
Kilgore got more direct. “I guess my concern is just basically the relationship between the City of Asheville and Asheville on Bikes, who I feel are doing the driving as to how and where we are doing things.” She suggested getting balance with a pedestrian committee and another one for the ADA community. Campbell then replied that Asheville on Bikes was involved in a lot of advocacy, but she hoped Kilgore would trust staff to be fair-minded, not manipulated by a single interest but guided in all things by established policy.
Manheimer indicated nothing in the current discussion was going to move the needle on council’s support for the bike lanes. She, however, thought exploring strategies to design the city’s transportation infrastructure more inclusively for all would be a good topic for a future work session.
During general public comment, Jonathan Wainscott began, “I would like to say, ‘Bravo,’ to Councilwoman Kilgore on this bike lane issue. I did go on the tour of this a few months ago, sponsored by Asheville on Bikes and attended by city staff, and I was incredulous with so much of the layout, I couldn’t even finish the tour; I was losing my mind. Down on College Street, by Rankin Avenue, where Tops Shoes’ back door lets out across from the Mediterranean Café, the plan is to put the bike lane on the left-hand side of the road, and the parking that’s going to be there off of the curb and put it in the middle of the road, and then you’ve got what’s left of the road on the right-hand side of what’s left of the road, and there’s not enough room for emergency vehicles to get down, but when I pointed this out, they said, ‘No worries, the bike lane is big enough to drive a firetruck through it in case they need to.’ And if that makes sense to you, I think you should reconsider this.
“I just went on the City of Asheville page to look at the drawings that were handed out on this tour. The dimensions are wrong. I took a tape measure out there on College Street and found four feet of mistake. It doesn’t even fit. So, it’s not for a lack of vision and understanding that I oppose this. It’s because the dimensions on the thing are wrong, and they don’t even fit. It’s horrible design. The field dimensions are wrong. There are places where the dimensions are given in decimals and in increments of feet and inches. It’s sloppy! Whatever thing that we put out there – and now it’s going to be on the consent agenda – is like – It’s horrible! It’s just like a little sprinkling of some community engagement along the way so that we can say that we did that. It happens in town all of the time.
“I would love to walk this with you all. I’ll take a tape measure and a piece of chalk out there again and show you where it doesn’t fit. All of the gutters and the curbs are listed as 30″ wide, two feet for the gutter and six inches for the curb, I believe, and that’s wrong. None of those measure that way. And, you know, it’s terrible. The design is ter-ri-ble. Go ahead and do it. The other problem that we have with this is we’re going to grind off all of the stripes that are existing there and put new stripes on it. We’re not doing this on fresh pavement. So, when the new lines start wearing off, they’re going to look like the old lines that are done. If you’re not doing this well, don’t do it at all. It’s terrible.”
Addressing Kilgore, Wainscott continued, “Thank you for stepping up. I would love to get together with you between now and next time and grab a couple more people and put together a 10-minute [beating the air with his fist] mm-mm-mm on this because it’s bad, bad, bad.”
The City of Asheville’s position is that the bike lanes are, “not expected to have a significant impact on traffic flow” and “no impact on business access or driveways is expected.” While limiting automobile traffic to just one lane, the project will require the removal of only four on-street parking spaces and the moving or adjustment of some loading zones. No changes to traffic signals were allowed in the design process. While a learning curve is to be expected with the addition of rules and symbols to the roadways, the city maintains that they are not doing anything that hasn’t been done in other cities. For more information, visit ashevilleonbikes.com.
In Other News
By way of the consent agenda, the council approved allowing council-appointed advisory boards and commissions to continue meeting remotely. The practice was allowed automatically when the governor imposed a state of emergency during the pandemic, but the state of emergency was lifted on August 15. Several members of the public spoke before the council, objecting to the measure. First, they said, remote meetings did not give members of the public a venue for speaking live. Secondly, the ordinance, for some unexplained reason, required that in-person meetings not be livestreamed.