Asheville – It read like a bait-and-switch. The City of Asheville posted a press release that began, “Over the last several weeks, the City of Asheville has been talking with business owners, property owners, and the broader public about a proposal to add bicycle lanes to Biltmore Avenue between Patton and Hilliard avenues, in conjunction with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT)’s upcoming repaving and restriping project.”
The remainder of the release clarifies “Bike lanes will not be added at this time; rather, the city will aim to enhance delivery access in the corridor by adding new loading zones and expanding existing ones. Additionally, the city will work with NCDOT during this time to evaluate the potential for lowering the speed limit on Biltmore between Aston and Hilliard.” The City of Asheville’s Communications Specialist, Jessica Hughes, after reaching out to the Transportation Department, replied, “Undetermined,” to an inquiry about when these bike lanes might be expected.
For anybody thinking the city should be run like a business, a press release stirring up public anticipation for bike lanes, but only at some point after the road is already restriped, almost sounds like an attempt to rally public sentiment against wasting money on a first round of striping. The first round is part of a NCDOT repaving project. Hughes explained, “At this time, the only ‘significant’ changes being proposed are adding and expanding existing loading zones. We are also asking NCDOT to replace crosswalks with a more high-visibility standard crosswalk.”
Members of the Asheville City Council often tell the public their hands are tied when they receive complaints about state-maintained roads like Biltmore Avenue. In recent years, they have earned themselves a better seat at the table, though. According to Hughes, “When there is an upcoming repaving project, the city always uses this opportunity to assess whether changes to the pavement markings should be made, including whether multimodal features such as bike lanes could be provided. If it can be done as part of an NCDOT repaving project, the city does not have to pay for the changes. The city and NCDOT routinely work together on projects such as this and evaluate potential restriping changes together.”
The NCDOT moves glacially, though, and if the city missed the boat on this chance to get bike lanes, it could be another six years or so before the project makes the cut. Hughes was asked if the city could just go ahead and create the bike lanes on its own timeframe and budget. Hughes replied, “We do not have to wait for a DOT repaving project; but any proposed changes to a DOT roadway must be approved by DOT, and an encroachment permit must be approved if the city initiates and installs a new striping pattern, new crosswalk, pedestrian safety features, etc. If these types of things are included in the DOT’s project, then the city does not have to get a permit, or, in some cases, pay for the improvements.”
On a very positive note, the city intentionally sought input from stakeholders, like people who own real estate or operate businesses on that part of Biltmore Avenue. It wasn’t like the time the city decided to rezone Merrimon Avenue and required, among many other things, all new construction to have at least two stories with storefronts “up to the curb.” Anyone who knew about it, in any part of the world, was invited to provide feedback online, but no special effort was made to inform the property owners and commercial tenants in Merrimon.
This time, the city held five public meetings, with virtual access to most, and opened the door to email commentary. Without being asked, Hughes assured, “Most meetings included business owners and property owners.” Property owners received a letter, and business owners with contact information “on file” received an email. Then, staff went door-to-door, knocking, conversing, and distributing leaflets. Even so, a week before the deadline to comment, many business owners had been clueless. Karen Ramshaw said she and others who invest and/or trade in the area were blindsided in the middle of the tourist season in this era of short-staffing with too much information and too little time and bandwidth to process it.
Many complained about the road diet and expressed a need for more and better loading docks first. There was also concern for emergency vehicle response times, with the road narrowing so close to Mission Hospital. TJ Robinson asked staff to consider the absurdity of moving in and out of an apartment. Already, the sidewalks are narrow and often populated by sleeping homeless people. A mover would have to park the van on the other side of the busy highway, carry each piece of furniture to the next crosswalk, through traffic, and then double back to the apartment. A large number of commenters, of course, loved the plan.
The city’s opinion, expressed by Hughes, is, “Increasing bicycle infrastructure and providing a connected network also indirectly supports a number of city goals related to affordability, community health, and sustainability. In particular, transportation costs are typically the second-largest household expense behind housing costs (rent/mortgage, utilities, etc.). Improving affordability in Asheville is therefore more than just providing more affordable housing, but also working to decrease transportation costs by providing alternatives to vehicle ownership. ”
The mystery behind the ironic wording of the press release was solved with a visit to the city’s project page. From the announcements posted, it is clear this was a bike lane project from the get-go. The concept of improving loading docks seems to have arisen from responses to the city’s requests for secondary input. The solicitations state, “The city would like to receive input on the plan and information about any operational needs (i.e., parking, loading, pedestrian and/or bike concerns) that we should consider when finalizing the restriping plan with NCDOT.” What was so hard to grasp was that this time, the city was actually giving commerce, and thus revenue, or the supply side, a voice — and heeding it.
In case the reader is as in-the-dark as Ramshaw and other business owners in the affected area were, the project calls for removing one southbound lane on Biltmore Avenue between Patton and Hilliard avenues. The parking/loading lanes would remain where they are, except more loading space would be created at the expense of parking. A separate project, which will construct bike lanes on Patton Avenue and College Street, is expected to break ground in the coming months.