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Cost of Growth: No quick fixes for transportation chokepoints

As News 13 continues to look at the cost of growth in our area, we uncovered the fix for our traffic problems will take a long-term commitment and money the state doesn't have. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Asheville drivers lose what averages to be a day a year waiting in traffic.

That leads to millions in wasted gas.

As News 13 continues to look at the cost of growth in our area, we uncovered the fix for our traffic problems will take a long-term commitment and money the state doesn't have.

Over the next decade, the N.C. Department of Transportation is only able to fund 17 percent of the projects needed to relieve congestion. A big expansion project, decades in the making, next year between Henderson and Buncombe counties could make a difference.

The struggle for local residents

“This is going to be, I believe, 600 apartments, coming in right here,” Donna Ensley said.

The thought of new neighbors doesn't exactly thrill her.

“When you end up working extra hours just so you don't have to be in traffic to get home, yeah, quality of life,” Ensley said.

Sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on Brevard Road, a south Buncombe County chokepoint for traffic, caused such frustration, Ensley retired to avoid it.

“When I was working at MANNA, this is what I was facing trying to come home. Now, I never go out at this time of day,” Ensley said.

Traffic apps and GPS have turned back roads that once provided relief from Interstate 26 slowdowns into anything but a shortcut.

“That all of the locals knew, are no longer cut through roads that only the locals know,” Ensley said.

Pushing for changes that could make a difference in 'bottleneck' areas

Ensley and a dozen others recently raised their voices, calling for more foresight by Buncombe County’s Planning and Development Commission.

“What I would love to see is strategic development so that we are planning the roads as well as all the other infrastructure before we put the homes in,” Ensley said.

With more than 1,900 apartments, homes and townhomes approved for construction in Buncombe County in 2017, many of them in south Buncombe County, planning board members agree with residents' concerns.

“The traffic is, it's a major issue. It has been since Day 1 sitting on this board,” board member Nancy Waldrop said.

The board passed a measure requiring developers building more than 75 units to conduct a traffic study, but some members said the county should take it a step further, updating the land use plan.

"We are changing so quickly and so rapidly in this county with such an influx of people that we really don't want to go away that it's not, our infrastructure, the transportations, the schools, the homes,the whole nine yards can't keep up with that without better knowledge of what's going on and without some plan for how to handle all of it,” Waldrop said.

Department of Transportation engineers said local governments can benefit from these changes.

“The NC DOT, in the course of issuing them a driveway permit, will ask them sometimes to add a turn lane or add capacity to an existing turn lane, add a signal or upgrade a signal,” NC DOT Buncombe County engineer Randy McKinney said.

The cost of improvements would then follow to developers.

Traffic counts reveal trouble areas

Traffic counts at I-26 and Airport Road prove the point of increased capacity. Those roads saw a jump of 7,000 vehicles over a years’ time. I-40 at the junction with I-26 and I-240 increased by 4,000 vehicles, and more than 103,000 vehicles crossed Jeff Bowen Bridge, up 1,000 from the previous year.

(Zoom in and click on the dots in the map above to see NC DOT traffic counts on roads near your home.)

Part of the problem -- more workers are making their way to where the jobs are in Buncombe County.

“For every county in our region, we're seeing this trend where people are traveling across county lines more and more, even for people who are residing in Buncombe County,” said Lyuba Zuyeva, French Broad River MPO director.

Fifty-percent of Henderson County workers and 75 to 78 percent of people in Transylvania and Madison counties travel outside the county for work.

Improvements by the numbers

The mountains saw 138 DOT improvement projects over the last decade worth $438.9 million, but only eight projects included widening. In the last three years, there were just 14.08 lane miles added for the entire 16 county region. That's nearly equal to one lane on I-26 from Highway 64 in Hendersonville to Long Shoals Road.

“It's hard to add lane miles in big chunks mainly due to money,” McKinney said.

Widening will start next year on I-26 from Highway 64 through the I-240, I-40 interchange, helping the flow of north, south traffic.

“That's a huge project. There will be a public input meeting for that project coming up on April 16th,” Zuyeva said.

But improvements could make it worse before it gets better.

“Drivers might see additional congestion impacts because of construction and might try to detour to additional corridors,” Zuyeva said.

Which is why the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization is also planning traffic congestion studies this summer before the work starts.

“Such as Hendersonville Road and C-191, U.S. 70 and U.S. 74, all of those major arterials where we are seeing some major congestion,” Zuyeva said.

Officials plan to track drivers by their cell phone data.

“So, basically, real time cell phone data to identify how the travel speeds are compared during congested peak times versus regular times that are off peak,” Zuyeva said.

It could take a year to develop recommendations. Charlotte recently updated its zoning ordinances and is retrofitting cut off neighborhoods with new connections.

“It can be a tough sell because somebody might be used to living on a cul-de-sac and all of a sudden you're proposing a new roadway coming through their neighborhood,” Zuyeva said.

According to the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, the solution isn't always widening. Re-timing traffic signals can help alleviate congestion and an offchute of the French Broad River MPO called Go Mountain Commuting is trying to get some larger area employers to consider van-and car-pooling for employees.

Take the survey

You can weigh-in, they want the public's feedback. There's a survey link here to voice your opinion on traffic congestion to the French Broad River MPO.

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