News 13 Investigates: Crowded mountain highways cost drivers plenty

Drivers are seeing the congestion particularly along secondary north/south corridors, as driver attempt to avoid Interstate-26. When I-26 crawled near long shoals in July, Clayton to Brevard Roads seemed a likely alternative, but drivers sat for over 30 minutes. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

As the fall tourist traffic is about to begin, a News 13 investigation finds crowded mountain highways are costing drivers plenty.

But fixing the congestion won't come cheap or easy.

News 13 spent months digging into the numbers and found several factors play into more traffic on area highways.

Buncombe County’s population growth has remained consistent. Over the last four years, the county's added just more than 3,000 people each year. And then there are the tourists. In 2016, 10.8 million visitors made a trip to Asheville, 80 percent in their own vehicles. All that makes getting around on highways that haven't expanded since the 60s difficult.

“Hey, how's it going, how are you?” questioned Justin Smith has he bounded through the door of a downtown Asheville business, food delivery in tow. The Takeout driver’s shifts are busy.

“If you could just sign that please,” Smith says as he hands over the delivery.

Smith’s in and out of homes and businesses and stuck in what locals pay him to avoid – traffic.

“That's one of the reasons why they're ordering to-go food, because they might not want to even deal with it themselves,” said Smith.

His first 1.5-mile delivery downtown of the day takes 10 minutes, almost twice what Google maps shows, but Smith's seen worse.

“I've had (the same type delivery) it take 40 minutes before,” said Smith.

Smith’s suggestion for skirting traffic?

“Try and avoid the highways, I-26 and I-240, if possible,” said Smith.

News 13’s investigation found secondary roads are also feeling the pinch of more motorists, thanks to the device most now carry with them -- their phones' GPS.

“A lot of what you're seeing is people moving from one route to the other trying to avoid some things,” said Rick Tipton, a construction engineer with NCDOT.

Drivers are seeing the congestion, particularly along secondary north/south corridors, as people attempt to avoid Interstate 26. When traffic on I-26 crawled near Long Shoals in July, Clayton to Brevard Road seemed a likely alternative, but drivers sometimes sat for more than 30 minutes.

In June, Smokey Park Highway's on-ramp to I-40 near Interstate 26 felt like Atlanta. News 13 caught the backup on video and showed the DOT a half-mile of standstill traffic two lanes deep questioning the safety.

“It's not ideal, that's for sure. We don't necessarily want to see that, but that become the popularity of the area,” said Tipton.

TRIP, a national transportation research group, estimates Asheville area drivers lose $380 in time and wasted fuel annually. Time estimates are up from 18 wasted hours in 2016 to an estimated 26 hours spent in traffic this year.

News 13 uncovered the area's top three highest traffic areas -- I-240 near the Jeff Bowen bridge, I-26 approaching Brevard Road and I-40 east approaching I-26. Two of the locations have seen between 4,000 and 5,000vehicles more than the year before.

Expansion plans along the I-26 connector/I-240 should improve the traffic flow, but agreeing how to slice through neighborhoods has taken 28 years.

“In many ways, it’s a good thing that we take our time about thinking through those big complicated projects and designing them in the most appropriate way,” said Lyuba Zuyeva, director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Sections of I-240 in West Asheville reached capacity a decade ago, and the interchanges don't meet today's longer exit ramp standards

“It's easy to identify those problems, and it's more difficult to fix them,” said Tipton.

The DOT's fix for I-26's expansion from six lanes between Highway 25 and Asheville Highway and eight lanes from Asheville Highway to the I-40/240 interchange will begin buying land a year from now. A redesign of the Brevard Road interchange is underway.

“Right now, some of the traffic getting off at the interchange is actually backing up cueing onto the interstate, and so that creates some safety issues,” said Zuyeva.

I-40 exits at Hendersonville Road and Sweeten Creek will also see improvements to alleviate congestion. But, with all these projects potentially starting over the next two years, expect more delays before any relief.

“It probably will get worse,” said Zuyeva.

Justin Smith says, if that's the case, he'll pay less attention to the directions coming from his GPS.

“The GPS is telling everyone to use the same road to get to the same place, so everything is going to be on that road,” said Smith.

He suggests routes like McDowell Street versus Biltmore Avenue.

“We're passing by all the construction by the hospital, and it's a four-lane road,” said Smith as he drives McDowell Street.

And when all else fails, live by his tattoo, which seems apropos for a delivery driver. It says, “… and miles to go, before I sleep." He also recommends packing your patience.

“You just grin and bear it, there's not much you can do,” said Smith.

The French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organizations transportation plan is already prioritizing projects for the next nine years and is always interested in the public's input. You can see other future improvement projects and ideas around the traffic, like a ride-sharing project, when you click here.

On Sept. 6, 2017, an internal meeting, including the city’s representatives on the I-26 Connector Project Working Group, will be held at City Hall on the Mezzanine Level in the Water Admin Conference Room from 10-11:30 a.m. The focus of the meeting will be to discuss the scope of work for consultant services.

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