Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: Whenever time is available, and I hope you’re not snickering, can you see what the status of the Merrimon Avenue bike lane diet review is, since I think it has almost been a year, sans a few months, since it opened? I have seen a lot more traffic on Edwin Place and Kimberly Avenue, but worse than that, Merrimon comes to a crawl between eight and 10, and noon until after rush hour. It’s always been busy, but with the lane reduction and added bike lanes, it’s really amped up. It took me almost 20 minutes to get from Fresh Market near Beaver Lake to the Shell station at I-240. Normally, pre-road diet, it was an easy four to five minutes, if you hit all the lights. The frustration comes when I have seen maybe four bikes on the bike lanes traveling Merrimon in the last three months. Does the city still stand behind turning it back to four lanes if this “experiment ” didn’t work?
My answer: Wait a second — you’ve seen four bikes on Merrimon? That can mean only one thing: Time for more bike lanes on Merrimon to ease the overcrowding!
Real answer: It has been just about a year since the N.C. Department of Transportation, at the city’s behest, converted Merrimon Avenue from Midland Road to W.T. Weaver Boulevard from two traffic lanes in each direction to a three-lane configuration. Merrimon, a busy north Asheville corridor that is also U.S. 25, now has one travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane, and bike lanes on the outside of each travel lane.
Work started last October, and while most of it wrapped up in the summer, it is not quite complete yet.
Jody Lawrence, assistant construction engineer with the NCDOT’s Asheville office, said work remains on “a handful of curb ramps, finishing the permanent pavement markings and installing snow-plowable pavement markers.”
The road is operating in its new configuration, though, and everyone has just been happy as a clam with it. Yes, I jest.
This project has generated plenty of angst, anger and animus, mainly from motorists who get stuck in traffic and business owners who’ve become frustrated with a setup they say has hurt business. Supporters say it undoubtedly has created a safer roadway while slowing traffic only slightly.
Kim Miller, spokesperson for the city of Asheville, checked in with the city’s Transportation Department staff for this query. The official completion date is important, as a reversal procedure exists, but it has an 18-month timeframe from the completion of the project.
“According to an agreement between the city of Asheville and NCDOT, there is a procedure to be followed to determine if a reversal is needed,” Miller told me via email.
Within 18 months of completion, the DOT and Asheville staff will meet quarterly to review safety data, non-motorized accidents, and vehicle operations.
The project will be considered for reversal if these factors occur:
- 25 percent increase in total crashes
- Fatal/serious crashes due to the road diet
- Fatal/serious crashes due to the road diet
- New or growing pattern of bike and pedestrian crashes regardless of injury
- Increase of 50-85 percent of speeds
- New or recurring traffic on 1-26 or I-240
- Spillover traffic through adjacent streets
If the parties involved here decide Merrimon Avenue should revert to its former design, the DOT will make the revisions and the city will cover the costs, Miller said.
Regarding the timetable, Lawrence said, “the clock will start ticking for the 18-month review when the project is accepted, which will hopefully be by the end of October.”
So that would put us into the spring of 2025 for consideration of a reversal.
Mike Sule, executive director of Asheville on Bikes, which advocates for multi-modal transportation, said he thinks the new Merrimon configuration “is working quite well,” considering “it still being an active construction zone.”
“Cars are moving at a slower pace, (and) more and more people are biking and walking,” Sule said Monday.
He related a story about a person he met over the weekend who thanked him for pushing for the changes because their mother, who is visually impaired, now feels comfortable walking on Merrimon’s sidewalks.
Miller also noted the state’s 2012 “Complete Streets” policy supports efforts like the Merrimon Avenue reconfiguration. Additionally, the new design aligns with the city’s 2009 Downtown Master Plan, the 2016 Asheville in Motion Mobility Plan, and the 2018 Living Asheville Comprehensive Plan.
As I mentioned, plenty of business folks have expressed discontent with the new layout, and Sule is well aware of the criticisms. But he raises a fair point — Merrimon was pretty darned dangerous before the change.
“In all my years in Asheville, I’ve never really heard anyone ever say, ‘Merrimon is a great road to drive on. If I had to pick a road to drive on in Asheville, it is going to be Merrimon Avenue,’” Sule said. “I like to remind people it’s never been that great, and 150 percent more collisions than any road like it in the state of North Carolina is not an acceptable condition.”
In a February 2022 presentation about the project, Asheville’s Planning & Urban Design Department and its Transportation Department stated this about Merrimon Avenue:
“Over the last 10 years, this 2.5 mile section of Merrimon has seen more than the expected number of roadway crashes. Data shows that there is approximately a 150 percent higher rate of crashes on Merrimon compared to other similar roadways across the State (for every 10 crashes on other similar roads, Merrimon gets 15). The majority of vehicle crashes on Merrimon are related to vehicles making left-turns. Frontal impact and rear-end crashes are the most common due to vehicles stopping in the inside lane to turn left across Merrimon. Approximately 23 percent of crashes on Merrimon involve an injury and property damage estimates total more than $7 million.”
I find myself on the road several times a month. It’s definitely a little slower, but it also does indeed feel much safer — no cars zooming at you in the opposite direction at 45 mph, separated only by the suggestion of a double yellow line.
So yes, the new arrangement is less convenient for motorists, but it’s also definitely safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
“There’s not a great city in the world that is renowned for the motorists’ experience, meaning that all great cities are inconvenient to drive a car in,” Sule points out.
Offering more modes of getting from point A to point B will help ease that vehicular traffic.
“This is not a popular thing to say,” Sule added, “but there’s a certain amount of congestion that we have to begin to accept because our population is growing.”
The solution, Sule added, is not more traffic lanes but diversifying travel mode options and creating more walkable places that are transit- and bicycle-friendly.
I suspect the comments on this column will be especially fun.
Question: Do you know what’s going on in the field next to Fletcher Elementary School? Our neighborhood hasn’t been told anything, nor seen any signs, except the construction company sign. My husband heard yesterday that it’ll be some type of emergency service. Interestingly, we’re about a mile away from the Fletcher Police Station, Fletcher Fire Department, and a few miles away from the new Mission Health emergency room on Hendersonville Road. We haven’t seen anything in the town newsletter.
My answer: I was sort of hoping this development would be new bike lanes, just so I could sit back and watch the community go bonkers.
Real answer: This is indeed Henderson County’s new Fletcher Emergency Medical Services Station 6.
The county issued a news release about the Sept. 6 groundbreaking.
“The addition of the Fletcher EMS Station will allow other ambulances in the county to remain in their districts, which results in decreased response times across the county,” Mike Morgan, the county’s chief communications officer, said in the release.
The county’s website notes, “Currently, the EMS team assigned to this station works during the daytime hours out of the Fletcher Fire Station. When the new station is completed, a 24-hour truck stationed in Fletcher will have access to the amenities it needs.”
The Henderson County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the $3.1 million facility, using funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Construction will start this fall and should be completed by summer 2024, the county states.
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