Before embarking on such a major project, serious consideration should be given to a road diet for this section. A three-lane road diet would provide space for bicycle lanes in both directions in conformance with the City’s adopted plans. This could be done within the existing street width using lane widths in NCDOT’s Complete Streets Policy: three 10 to 11 foot traffic lanes and two 6 to 8 foot bike lanes. With turn signals at intersections, this would improve the left-turn situation. The bicycle lanes would serve as buffers between pedestrians and fast-moving traffic. It would be much less disruptive and expensive. The only initial drawback would be not filling in the west-side sidewalk gaps, but this could be done as a separate project if the road diet is successful.
FHWA literature shows that road diets are generally successful for daily volumes up to 20,000, and in some cases they have worked with volumes as high as 26,000. Charlotte has two successful examples with volumes around 20,000. The current volume on Merrimon at Edgewood is 20,000, and the volume has decreased steadily over the last 18 years: 1998: 26,000; 2004: 24,000; 2010: 21,000. This trend, despite increases in population during that period, raises serious questions about the validity of the computer model projection of higher volumes in 2040.
While there is uncertainty about whether a road diet would work well with the traffic volumes on Merrimon, there are ways to evaluate whether it would be successful. One way is to implement the road diet for a test period of six months or so, and then evaluate the results. The cost of such a test would be limited to striping paint, plus the left-turn signals that would be needed anyway for the widening project. An alternative would be to do a detailed computer simulation of traffic flows. This would require some additional data collection for speeds, vehicle spacing, etc. In either case, the road diet test should be extended north to a more logical terminus at Gracelyn (see #2 below).
If the road diet test is successful, follow-on projects should include completing the missing sidewalk links, and extending the road diet north along Merrimon to Beaver Lake, and south to Harris-Teeter or possibly I-240. All of this could probably be completed at no more cost than the currently proposed 0.6 mile widening.
If a test of a road diet results in congestion that all parties agree is unacceptable, I recommend the following changes to the proposed widening plan:
1. Revise the cross-section width allocation to provide adequate bicycle lanes in both directions. The City of Asheville’s Comprehensive Bicycle Plan (2008), funded by NCDOT, called for a bicycle climbing lane in this section; this plan is referenced in the 2009 Community Conditions Report prepared by NCDOT for this project. The more recent Asheville In Motion (AIM) plan, completed in 2016, calls for bicycle lanes in both directions on Merrimon. This can be done without increasing the proposed width of the project by reducing the traffic lane widths from 11-13 feet to 10-11 feet, thus providing two six-foot bike lanes. The narrower traffic lanes are consistent with NCDOT’s Complete Streets policy, and with successful road diets in Charlotte and elsewhere.
2. Extend the project north to the existing five-lane section at Gracelyn. There are significant left-turn volumes at McDonald’s, the Post Office, and Larchmont Road, with additional left turns at other businesses along this two-block section. It would also be unsafe to terminate the bike lanes before reaching the top of the long upgrade from Murdoch to Gracelyn. It would also make sense to cause all of the disruption at one time.
3. Provide a short (approx. 40 feet) section of sidewalk on the south side of Weaver at Merrimon. This will allow the addition of an inbound bus stop for ART routes N1 and N2. The current bus stop for this area is westbound on Weaver, which forces passengers to ride an extra 5-10 minutes around the UNCA loop before returning to the same intersection and then continuing south on Merrimon to downtown.
4. Consider running the greenway connection between Weaver Park and the Glenn’s Creek Greenway in a culvert under the Weaver/Merrimon intersection instead of crossing Merrimon at grade.
5. Reduce construction staging impacts near Weaver by reducing the number of lanes during construction and using slower speeds and tighter curves for the detour.
6. Connect Clearview Terrace to Edgewood Knoll Road instead of Chatham Road.
7. Reduce widths of curb cuts to the minimum needed for driveway access, in order to maximize the extent of sidewalks with curbs, e.g. at Vinnie’s, Asheville Pizza and other locations. Consolidate driveways wherever possible.
8. Relocate all utility poles behind the sidewalk or between the sidewalk and curb.
9. In segments where there would not be left-turning traffic, replace the center lane with short segments of landscaped median. Also, replace trees that are taken with new trees between the sidewalk and curb or behind the sidewalk.