There hasn’t been a new, major road project in Henderson County since the widening of Upward Road about six or seven years ago. Suddenly, there are more than half a dozen projects being proposed, creating the biggest uproar since Duke Energy proposed a few dozen different routes for new electric lines through the county three years ago. My hope is to answer some basic questions about how these proposed projects came to be, what the status of the various projects is, and how to voice your opinions.
How It Used to Work
Prior to 2011, North Carolina divided road money based on what was known as the “equity formula.” The goals were to complete the interstate system, build loops around major cities, including Asheville, and pave dirt roads maintained by the State. Some money went to municipalities for their roads. The equity formula gave priority to projects based on population, projects that would complete the interstate and then equal shares to different parts of the state. The population component was based on regions, and some cities were split between several regions.
The problem with the equity formula was that it didn’t always direct money to the projects that would relieve congestion or were most needed. Moreover, the system was very susceptible to being politicized. The DOT Board played a large role in deciding what roads would be built, and in counties held by the minority party — Republicans at the time —it was difficult to get road projects done. For example, in the 1990’s a road in Henderson County was built that was not recommended by the local transportation advisory committee or by any local government. The road came directly at the request made to then Governor Jim Hunt.
How It Works Now
Following a scandal involving NCDOT board members, Governor Perdue got the NCDOT board out of making transportation infrastructure decisions. Then in 2014 the McCrory Administration worked with legislators to change the law was to establish a process meant to give priority to the state’s critical needs and depoliticize the process. House Bill 817 [Strategic Transportation Investments] created a data-driven process that ranks projects based on the following factors:
- Congestion (30%)
- Cost/Benefit (25%)
- Freight and Military (15%)
- Safety (15%)
- Economic competitiveness (10%)
- Multimodal and military (5%)
Every potential project gets a numerical score and is ranked. Funding is divided three ways: statewide, regional and district. 40% of the money goes to projects numerically determined to be most needed across the state. 30% of the monies go to projects numerically determined within each of NCDOT’s seven regions, and another 30% of the monies go to projects numerically determined within NCDOT’s fourteen divisions. Henderson County is in the western regional comprised of the seventeen most western counties. Henderson County is also part of NCDOT’s Division 14, along with Polk, and Transylvania but not Buncombe.
Federal Law Intersects with State Law
Under federal law, areas designated by the census as being urban in nature and having a population of 50,000 or more are required by the federal Highway Act of 1962 to have a transportation planning process in order to qualify for federal funding. In North Carolina, this process is carried out by Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). There are currently nineteen MPOs in North Carolina, and Henderson County is part of the French Broad River MPO that includes most of Buncombe County and portions of Haywood, Madison and Transylvania Counties.
The MPO has a board, and its board is composed of elected officials and others. Henderson County and each of its municipalities have representatives on the MPO board. Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley is the current chairman of the French Broad River MPO board.
The first step in the process of ranking projects is “planning.” NCDOT staff help MPOs develop comprehensive transportation plans that outline transportation priorities (usually for a 20-25 year period) that are based on future land use, employment and population changes. These plans are required by both federal and state law. After a public involvement process, NCDOT and each MPO adopts the plan, which becomes the blueprint for transportation infrastructure improvements in the area.
The second step in the process of ranking projects is “programming.” Whatever needs identified in the comprehensive transportation plan are then evaluated using the date-driven scoring process to help prioritize funding for transportation projects. Each proposed project is reviewed, ranked, and scored based on the criteria noted above (congestion, safety, etc.) to determine which projects will be funded in the 10-year State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP). The STIP is updated every two years to be sure it accurately reflects the state’s current financial situation. The scoring of local projects comes from two sources: the local officials on the MPO and the Division Engineer for NCDOT, currently Brian Burch out of NCDOT’s District 14 Office in Sylva.
Prior to 2015, the NCDOT board, NCDOT staff, the Governor, and certain key legislators played a major role in determining prioritization and funding of transportation projects. Beginning in 2015, local government officials serving on the MPO and the Division Engineer use a scoring system to determine local and regional projects — like all but one of the projects currently being considered in Henderson County.
Money for transportation projects comes from the federal government and one of two trust funds that receive their funding from gas tax revenues. No funding for transportation projects is appropriated from the state’s budget.
What all this means is that a process that was top-down a few years ago is now bottom-up. The NCDOT board, the Governor and legislators play almost no role in the process anymore. Rather, local government officials participating in the MPO process play a significant role in identifying projects and then prioritizing them.
So here are the projects currently under consideration in Henderson County:
1. U5783 – Improvement of US64 from White Pine Drive to Blythe Street. This project addresses the issue of increased expected volume of traffic in 2040 from 13,000-16,000 vehicles per day (vpd) to 16,000-19,000 vpd. Currently, this one mile stretch has an accident rate of twice the statewide average for this type of roadway, reporting 66 crashes from 2011-16, with 65% of them rear-end collisions. The level of service (LOS) of this road will decrease significantly with the increase in congestion.
The purpose of this project is to reduce traffic issues, congestion, reduce crashes and improve pedestrian and cyclist mobility utilizing a median, roundabouts and U turn bulbs, restricting left turn movements. Traffic studies showed significant reductions in traffic delay would be achieved with converting the existing intersections to roundabouts.
Two design alternatives were presented at the public input meeting. In considering safety, costs, traffic service, social impacts and public comments received, the NCDOT selected an alternative including roundabouts. A second public comment meeting was held to seek input on the roundabout project with the NCDOT receiving 24 unfavorable responses and 17 favorable. Key concerns included safety of roundabouts and impact to adjacent properties and businesses. The NCDOT is currently looking for opportunities to reduce impact from the project on adjacent properties.
While this project goes from Hendersonville through a portion of unincorporated Henderson County to Laurel Park, the Laurel Park town council has taken the lead on the project. The town council has been active in the planning process and continues to back the project, while supporting changes to reduce impacts on adjacent neighbors.
The timeline for this project is that right of way (R/W) acquisition is targeted to begin June, 2019 and the letting of bids for construction has a target date of May, 2021.
2. U-5886 and U6049 Improve and Extend White Street from Willow Rd to US176, Improve NC255 from South King Street to US 176. This project was initiated by the French Broad River Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP) to address a significant increase of anticipated traffic volume by 2040, to provide improved connectivity and alleviate traffic congestion. A 3-lane connector providing direct connection from Hebron Road to US 176 has been recommended.
A public comment meeting was held and comments were equally split for and against the project. The NCDOT is currently refining the project to address concerns from municipal officials and the public input regarding impact to adjacent properties and businesses. The focus is currently on the following components:
- Adjusting the roundabout at South Church St. and South Main St. to improve flow to King St. and access to Main St.
- Design a more compact (urban) roundabout at Willow Rd. and Hebron Rd.
- Evaluating use of a temporary bridge during construction of the new bridge on NC225.
- Providing improved access to adjacent businesses
The timeline for this project is R/W acquisition to begin June, 2019 and Letting of bids to begin May, 2021.
3. R5748 Improve Kanuga Road from Little River Road to Church Street. This four mile improvement was included in the French Broad River MPO’s CTP as needed improvement. By 2040, the expected travel volume will cause intersections to be near capacity. The crash rate for Kanuga Road is 74% above the statewide average for this type of roadway. There were 233 reported crashes on this road between 2012 and 2017, with two fatalities. As proposed, the project would create “complete streets” design, including bicycle and pedestrian accommodations to address the portions of Kanuga Road, identified as bike routes in the Blue Ridge Bike Plan.
The purpose of the project is to ease congestion at busy intersections, reduce crashes, improve traffic flow and improve pedestrian/bicycle connectivity. The project includes widening lanes, adding curb and gutter and paving the shoulders on each side. South Church Street to Hebron Street would be three lanes with curb and gutter, while Hebron Street to Erkwood/State Street would be two lanes with curb and gutter and Erkwood/State Street to Little River Road would be two lanes without curb and gutter.
A public input meeting was held and the consensus was more residents were not in favor than approved of the project. After review of the public comments and discussions with Henderson County, Hendersonville and Flat Rock officials the project is being redeveloped to address concerns. Another public meeting will be held to present the revised project.
What is happening with this project illustrates how the process is supposed to work. When problems and concerns about the project arose, NCDOT officials met with local officials and worked on solving the problems. NCDOT will present a new proposal, and that proposal will also have a public hearing.
The proposed timeline for this project is still to be determined. The original R/W acquisition date was for July 2018 with the letting of bids in July 2020. However, these dates will slide while NCDOT completes work on its new proposal.
4. R5744 – Balfour Parkway Proposed new location roadway from NC191 to US64. The proposal to create a four lane divided highway providing east-west connectivity between NC 191 and US 64 has been included in the FBRMPO long range plan since 2005 and a NCDOT 2014 feasibility study projected it would be necessary to accommodate anticipated traffic volumes. The project would improve east-west mobility, reduce travel time and limit truck traffic through downtown Hendersonville.
As originally proposed, there were two proposed corridors with as many as 24 preliminary alternatives of endpoints and crossings. Each proposal includes a 1000 foot wide right of way to allow for refining the design and minimizing potential impact, while only 250 feet of right of way are expected to be in actual design; properties currently appearing to be impacted may not actually be impacted depending on the alternatives chosen. The public comment meeting was well attended with many more residents opposed than supporting the project. Comments will continue to be accepted online or by email.
Most recently, the Henderson County Commission voted to ask NCDOT to abandon the proposed parkway and come back with “reasonable and realistic alternatives to address legitimate local traffic concerns.” Since the parkway only goes through Henderson County and not any municipalities, Henderson County is the local government to which NCDOT will be listening. Again, the bottom-up process is working. The local government is communicating its views, and in meetings I’ve had with NCDOT it is clear that the agency is quite prepared to stop work on a project if local governments oppose it.
The proposed timeline for this project was R/W acquisition targeted for 2022 and letting of bids in 2024, but clearly the whole project is in doubt given the resolution passed by the county commission.
5. U-5887 North Highland Lake Road from NC225 to US 176 (about 1 mile). Traffic volume is expected to increase by almost 50% to 9700 vpd by 2040. Currently the area has reported 91 crashes with 70% occurring from left turn movements, rear end collisions, and sideswipes. The project was initially proposed in 2011 by NCDOT Division Four but did not rank high enough in the scoring and was ranked again in 2015 and became a funded project with the support of the MPO. The Village of Flat Rock worked closely with NCDOT to develop the concepts for this project. The purpose is to increase the vehicular travel lane widths and improve pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Traffic studies show if the project is not constructed, the intersections will experience congestion beyond levels considered acceptable and the LOS will become unacceptable.
A public input meeting was held to seek input on two alternatives at which there was more opposition than support of the project. Primary concerns include tree removal and impact to adjacent properties, particularly in the historic district. In response to the input, NCDOT has proposed an alternative to be more context-sensitive while achieving the objective of the project.
This is another project where the local government, the Village of Flat Rock, has been very involved, and NCDOT has tried to respond to public input. A recent editorial in the Hendersonville Lightning, “They won’t take yes for an answer,” gives one a perspective on the debate.
R/W acquisition is targeted at June 2019 and letting of bids targeted to begin December 2020.
6. R2588B NC 191 from Mountain Road to NC 280, south of Mills River. The purpose of this project is to improve safety and mobility along the 4.5 mile stretch on NC191. The French Broad River CTP recommends widening the existing two-lane road to four lanes with a median, bike facilities, and sidewalks with the southern terminus as the approximate intersection for the future Balfour Parkway.
The expected traffic volume for 2040 is 20,000 vpd, up from the current 12,400, and over capacity for a two-lane facility. There were 233 reported crashes within this stretch of NC 1919 between 2012 and 2107 with 3 fatalities reported. The total crash rate and fatal crash rate are higher than the statewide average for this type of roadway and traffic analysis indicates intersections on this stretch will be over capacity at peak periods without improvements. The project will also improve roadway drainage infrastructure and allow a multi-use path to be constructed between Rugby Middle School and West Henderson High School.
A public comment meeting was held in March, and a large number of people opposed the widening. This is a somewhat unusual in that the Town of Mills River didn’t play a huge role in putting the project forward. For years, the town council just didn’t participate in the MPO process, so the project got prioritized without a lot of input from Mills River. That has recently changed, and my expectation is the town council will engage with NCDOT regarding this project.
There is construction already occurring between Rugby Road and Mountain Road, and some may assume that this relates to the large widening project. It really does not. The adding of turn lanes and widening is a project related to the two schools — Rugby Middle School and West Henderson High School. Anyone who has used that stretch of road in the morning when the school open or in the afternoon when the schools let out know the problem that is being addressed by this small construction project.
R/W acquisition is proposed for June 2019 with letting of bids in June 2021, but my guess would be that those dates will change if the project moves forward.
7. I-4400/I-4700 Widen I-26 from US 25 to I-40 (about 22 miles). Currently sections of I-26 are operating at levels of congestion characterized by unstable speeds with a high level of discomfort to drivers. By 2040, I-26 is anticipated to be over capacity, hindering ability to serve high-speed regional travel. Widening would improve existing and projected traffic flow, as well as improve insufficient pavement structure and deteriorating road conditions. Public comment meetings were held in January 2013, October 2016 and April 2018.
R/W acquisition is targeted for July 2018 with letting of bids proposed for July 2019.
8. U-5105 Construct a roundabout on NC225 at the intersection of Erkwood Dr/Shepherd St. The purpose of the project is to improve traffic flow and safety in the project area where the offset intersections at Erkwood Drive and Shepherd Street currently obstruct traffic flow and create a safety hazard for motorists.
R/W acquisition is complete and letting of bids should begin in June 2018.
9. U-5840 Old Airport Road from US 25 to Mills Gap Road. The NCDOT plans to construct a three lane section through the entire project with turn lane improvements, bicycle accommodations and space for future sidewalks to improve traffic flow and safety along the corridor.
R/W acquisitions are currently in progress and the letting of bids should begin July 2018.
Some of these projects have received little attention and are moving towards construction in 2018, and others are being reworked following comments received during a public input process and consultation with local officials. One or more of them may never be built because of public input and local government opposition.
The system is working. No longer are roads built or not built because someone in Raleigh says so or some influential politician weighs in. Rather, road projects are prioritized and funded based on a data-driven process. Regional and local road projects move forward only with the involvement of local officials who have the ability to potentially kill a proposed local road project. This is a very different process than the process in the 80’s and 90’s and early 2000’s.
Except for the projects where right-of-way acquisitions are complete or in progress, the projects could be changed or even stopped in response to public and local government action. One can access information about the projects from the NCDOT website, [https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/]. One can provide input to NCDOT by contacting Joshua B. Deyton, PE for the NCDOT Division 14 Project Team. His contact information follows. Local government officials play a huge role in transportation planning now, so they should be copied on communications with NCDOT
Even as these projects are being programmed and constructed, transportation planning continues. Henderson County has a transportation advisory committee that meets the third Wednesday at 4:00 pm (unless otherwise noted) in the King Street Meeting Room in the County Administration Building at 100 North King Street, Hendersonville, NC and has representatives from all of the local governments. The French Broad MPO meets at the Land of Sky Regional Council, 339 New Leicester Hwy, Suite 140, Asheville, NC on the second and fourth Thursdays, unless otherwise noted, and has responsibility for putting forward priorities for the region. The schedule can be found on their website [http://www.fbrmpo.org/]. Anyone wanting to be involved in transportation planning or anyone simply wanting to monitor transportation projects can attend any of their meetings.
Contact Information regarding road projects for Henderson County:
Joshua B. Deyton, PE
Division 14 Project Team Lead, NCDOT
Highway Division 14
253 Webster Rd
Sylva, NC 28779