Asheville City Council approves conversion of Merrimon Avenue from 4 to 3 lanes

ASHEVILLE — At its May 24 meeting, the Asheville City Council approved the controversial Merrimon Avenue Road Plan, which will reduce a section of Asheville’s Central Corridor from four lanes to three lanes.

“I think we have a duty. We have a duty to make this road safer for our community,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer.

The months-long conversation has mired the community in a debate over the future of Merrimon Avenue, a traffic-prone and often congested north-south corridor in downtown Asheville.

The city council approved the conversion by a 6 to 1 vote, with only council member Sandra Kilgore voting against.

The proposed project is part of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s upcoming resurfacing project and envisions approximately 2.5 miles of Merrimon Avenue from I-240 to Midland Road in Beaver Lake.

While the entire section will be repaved and relined, the northern section from WT Weaver Boulevard to Midland Road will be affected by the conversion.

It would also add 5ft bike lanes along both sides of the road.

The City of Asheville is considering a proposed reconfiguration of Merrimon Avenue as part of NCDOT's upcoming resurfacing project.

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Kilgore, the only vote against the project, had a number of concerns ranging from safety and growth in the area to slowing traffic.

As a high traffic area, Kilgore said inviting cyclists into the corridor was “irresponsible”.

Manheimer took the opposite position. She said she’s lived in North Asheville since 1988. It’s a neighborhood she drives daily, she said, where she shops, walks, runs and pushes her children in prams.

She personally testified to the fatal accidents that occurred along the hallway.

“We have to think of different ways to make our streets livable,” Manheimer said. “It’s imperative for us to make it safer, and I think this change will be good.”

‘Death Against It’

At the May 24 meeting, 10 residents, many of whom lived or worked along the corridor, spoke about the project at the end of a lengthy city council meeting.

Four of the speakers were in favor of the project and five were against.

It’s a proposal that divided many respondents, but most, regardless of position, were passionate about their position – a fervor shared by some board members at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“I’m all against it,” said one panellist, Cynthia Frazier, a business owner along the corridor.

Like many, she questioned the safety of the conversion and said she feared the project could lead to the deaths of cyclists.

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Major changes could occur on Merrimon Avenue, a corridor in North Asheville characterized by a high accident rate and a history of bicycle and pedestrian collisions, as the city considers a proposal to implement a four-way to three-way conversion.

Other opponents of the project, such as Cynthia Hamilton, called it “fundamentally flawed and dangerous” and said obstacles such as garbage cans and delivery trucks would make the road dangerous to navigate.

The non-profit bicycle advocacy group Asheville on Bikes has been among the strong supporters of the conversion. Board Chairman Clark Mackey voiced his support, attesting to the health and safety benefits to the community.

“It’s not easy to move forward with a project that requires our world to change,” Mackey said.

Project details

With a total price of $2.5 million, NCDOT will bear the cost burden, but has asked the city to contribute $275,000 to the project to cover traffic light adjustments at each of the signalized intersections.

Completion of the project is scheduled for December 31.

The road plan is expected to slow traffic but aims for a safer roadway and greater options for all multimodal users, according to a presentation given by Ken Putnam, the city’s transportation manager, at the May 24 council meeting.

The project is expected to result in a 17% increase in travel times, about two to three minutes behind schedule, said NCDOT Division Engineer Mark Gibbs, who was present at the May 24 meeting.

According to NCDOT data, over the past 10 years, the 2.5-mile section of Merrimon Avenue has seen more than expected number of traffic accidents.

A pedestrian avoids traffic in the middle of Merrimon Avenue on February 24, 2022.

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Data shows there is an approximately 150% higher accident rate on the Corridor compared to other similar roads across the state – for every 10 accidents on other similar roads, Merrimon Avenue has 15 .

The safety benefits on Merrimon suggest a potential accident reduction factor of 29%, which, if realized, could result in approximately 50 fewer accidents and 10 fewer injuries on Merrimon each year, according to the NCDOT.

Putnam said the city and NCDOT staff had been discussing the possibility of a conversion since 2018. A public comment process was launched in December 2021 — a sprawling and often contentious process that culminated in a crowded open house and to a public inquiry.

Survey results were received from more than 3,400 participants, with 4,038 comments in total, including those received by post, email, online, phone calls, through the survey and on Doors Day. open.

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Major changes could occur on Merrimon Avenue, a corridor in North Asheville characterized by a high accident rate and a history of bicycle and pedestrian collisions, as the city considers a proposal to implement a four-way to three-way conversion.

According to city ​​staff report, survey results indicated that 59% of respondents support a conversion from four to three lanes.

Although city and NCDOT staff expect the road diet to succeed, Putnam said, the agreement includes a waiver clause that establishes criteria and conditions for evaluating whether safety issues arise.

If the opt-out clause is exercised, the City would be responsible for appropriate adjustments to traffic lights and pavement markings up to a maximum cost of $300,000.

While some opponents of the project have argued that a three-lane conversion would be prohibitively expensive for the city’s public safety, Putnam’s presentations said the Asheville Fire Department does not anticipate any negative impact and that the department Asheville Police Department is “comfortable now” with the project, despite initial concerns about impacts on call times.

APD will closely monitor response times after project completion, according to the presentation.

The agreement between the city and NCDOT, which the city council approved for the city manager’s signature on Tuesday evening, includes:

  • Construction and maintenance responsibilities.
  • A removal clause of $300.00 at the city’s expense if the project were to be reversed.
  • Total project cost and cost share amounts.
  • A requirement that NCDOT and City staff will adhere to quarterly after implementation to review safety and operational data, including response time data provided by APD to assess the impacts of the conversion.

Among the project’s vocal supporters is Mike Sule, executive director of Asheville on Bikes, who lobbied for the project from the start.

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A May 17 open letter to city council urged a vote in favor of the conversion, attesting to greater safety, strong public support and more mobility options.

Sule said the night’s vote was “a clear indication of our leaders’ commitment to completing the streets.”

“We can, indeed, design our way to safer streets,” he said.

Next steps?

After the vote, Gibbs said the department was excited to move forward and “looks forward to a safer installation,” which he said has always been the department’s number one priority.

He said they expect fewer accidents along the corridor and those that do occur will be less serious.

The next step, he said, is to go through a signals redesign process, which will take 2-3 months.

The project is already under contract for resurfacing, Gibbs said, so with council approval all that will change is the stripe design.

Resurfacing will begin between August and September, he said, and the new configuration will go into effect soon after. He expects the conversion to be in place in October.

Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Current advice? Email [email protected] or message on Twitter @slhonosky.