Monday, October 17, 2016

Asheville’s Transportation Bond Examined

Greenways vs. Public Transportation
By Roger McCredie

This is the first of a series of articles examining each of the city’s three proposed bonds.

The largest of the three bonds Asheville residents will be asked to approve on November 8 is theoretically devoted to transportation system improvements. But analysts say the $32 million allocated for transportation purposes consists of work the city should have been doing all along, plus a generous dollop of cash for greenways, which they say should not even be included under the transportation heading.

The city’s breakdown of proposed transportation bond financing is as follows:
  •  Road resurfacing: $15,680,000
  • Sidewalk improvements: $3,500,000
  •  New sidewalk projects: $6,320,000
  •  Transportation safety: $1,900,000
  •  Greenways: $4,600,000
  •  Bus shelters $500,000

What you really get - patch job

The sidewalk improvement projects comprise eight miles of sidewalk maintenance (on 13 different roads), twelve new sidewalk linkages, and four miles of new sidewalks. What remains is to be applied to a myriad of street patching projects on which the city has fallen behind the curve.

Asheville is #1 City
for Pedestrian-Involved Traffic Accidents

According to the City's own bond application, Asheville has for several years been ranked as the number one city statewide in pedestrian-involved traffic accidents.
And yet, it dedicates less than 1% to public safety - $1.9 million, to be exact. Furthermore, that $1.9 million will produce a grand total of:
  • new crossing signals

  • 4 signal pole replacements and

  • new speedbumps on a total of 10 miles of city streets.

But will they actually even do this? Remember, it only takes a vote of 4 to change where the money goes...

Public Transportation vs. Greenways
$500,000 vs. $4.6 MILLION

As a nod to public transportation, the city has earmarked $500,000 for the construction of 20 new bus shelters. According to its own bond application, the city has not built any new bus shelters in three years. And according to a mass transit study conducted for the city in 2009, there are 25 existing bus stops (out of 87) where 25 or more persons board buses every day, adding up to 149,000 workday trips per year.

“For some reason, bus shelters are really expensive,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said during a recent bond presentation. Indeed the relatively paltry amount being devoted to bus shelters and transportation safety has led critics to wonder aloud why the city plans to devote more than double those two budget items to …  Greenways.

ALMOST 5 MILLION FOR GREENWAYS

The most actively discussed of the bond allocations (among those who are aware of them) is the $4.6 million for greenways -- $3.6 million for completion of the Swannanoa River Greenway and another million for greenway connectors.

Asheville’s greenway system – a necklace of “linear parks” surrounding the city – has served as a bandwagon for city government, candidates for city office, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and other promotional entities since the approval of the Greenway Master Plan in 2009. And almost from the beginning, the greenways project has met with pushback from property owners concerned about property values and privacy encroachment, as well as from environmental groups who fear the ecological consequences of construction.

Recent extensive felling of old-growth trees at the Town Mountain and French Broad greenway sites has infuriated many citizens, while more fiscally-minded observers have criticized the city for prioritizing greenway funding ahead of desperately needed infrastructure repair and public housing.

In 2012 the city quietly pulled the greenway plans out of the Parks and Recreation Department’s jurisdiction and moved them to Transportation. Ever since, city staff has hammered home the sentiment, as city Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn publicly stated last June, that “Asheville’s philosophy is that greenways are a part of the city’s infrastructure. They actually make up part of the multimodal transportation system.”

Calling greenways multimodal transportation components has drawn fire from citizens who point out that, while all greenways feature pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths they are by definition closed to vehicular traffic, including city buses.  As one observer put it, if you step out in the middle of a highway, you're likely to get hit.  Step out in the middle of a greenway.... maybe you'll encounter a deer.

“We see them as critical to our infrastructure,” Whitehorn said, prompting one local wag to say Whitehorn’s comments conjured up visions of “throngs of Ashevillians happily commuting to work on foot while singing, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho/It’s off to work we go’.”

Only slightly less fanciful, critics say, is the notion of greenways being used extensively by cyclist-commuters, although bicycles have become second only to craft beer as part of the Asheville brand.

City Manager Gary Jackson (cycling member of Velo Sports Racing; Salary - $227,831) and Councilor Gordon Smith are enthusiastic bicyclists, and Mayor Esther Manheimer saddled up to participate in the city’s “Strive Not To Drive” week last May. 

The transportation bond money proposes to finance the first phase of construction of the Swannanoa River (East Asheville Greenway): a two-mile corridor running from South Tunnel Road to Azalea Park.  

This begs the question - why have we put our public transportation second to tourism transportation? Tying greenways and cycling together allows the City to ramp up the importance of cycling.

According to a recent article by the John Locke Foundation, "bicycling remains a tiny, and largely insignificant, form of commuting" with usually less than 1% using it as a way of getting to work and "despite millions of dollars spent on infrastructure, bicycling in North Carolina has barely grown at all over the last decade." (Source: John Locke Foundation, "Spotlight 478: The Cost of Bike Lanes")

Therefore, if the City can save 149,000 work trips for bus commuters and has known that since 2009, why hasn't it done it and if these bonds pass, will they do it?

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