A path through a town bottleneck is still 4 years away

Mark Barrett
The Asheville Citizen-Times

With a population of 8,384, Black Mountain is still a small town. But it is large enough to have traffic jams.

When tourists, summer campers, and tractor-trailers flood in at busy times of the year, Melody Koebernik said she has to use shortcuts on her way back from lunch to avoid sitting through four or five cycles of the traffic light in front of her Key City Antiques shop.

Peter Ballhaussen, co-owner of Town Hardware & General Store across East State Street from Koebernik’s shop, keeps his eye out for large trucks that ignore a prohibition on making a right turn from State to Broadway Avenue, headed toward Interstate 40.

It is not unusual for them to come within a hair’s breadth of taking out a traffic light pole 3 or 4 feet from the corner of his store, he said.

State government recently accelerated planning for a new I-40 interchange on the town’s east side to give cars and pedestrians more breathing room around the central crossroads where State Street, Broadway Avenue and Montreat Road intersect.

Construction is now scheduled to begin in 2021 and end in 2023.

The I-40 interchange is one of several projects planned by the state Department of Transportation to alleviate congestion at traffic choke points around Buncombe County.

Koebernik’s shop window at the center of town gives her a great view down State Street to the east.

“It can get very busy, especially with the tractor-trailers coming through,” she said last week. “I’ve seen it get backed up as far as the eye can see, and I know it’s frustrating for the tourists.”

The eye can only see about three blocks or so in that direction, but Koebernik and others figure a traffic jam of even that size can deter shoppers from visiting downtown and its eclectic collection of shops.

The grid of streets is almost ideal for walking from Tyson’s Furniture store to Black Mountain Books to Hey Hey Cupcake shop. But shopkeepers said heavy truck traffic doesn’t fit well with the small-scale downtown.

They and others said the trucks clog the streets, and there are worries about the potential for pedestrians to get hit.

At times, there is “a lot of noise, a lot of traffic,” Ballhaussen said. An interchange that would allow large trucks and some other traffic to avoid downtown “would help tremendously,” he said.

Ingles Markets’ giant warehouse on U.S. 70 on the west side of town generates much of the tractor-trailer traffic, and some trucks are headed to or from other industries in the eastern end of the Swannanoa Valley.

In the last decade, town officials and the DOT considered an interchange where I-40 crosses over Blue Ridge Road near Ingles’ facility.

The idea - and changes to Blue Ridge Road that might have come with it - sparked sharp opposition from residents along the road then. The town board of aldermen voted to drop plans in February 2007, and DOT went along.

The board reversed course in 2011. A large, out-of-town brewery was considering property near the interchange as a new location; a major expansion of Ingles’ warehouse and corporate headquarters was scheduled to open in 2012; and traffic downtown wasn’t getting any better.

Since then, skin care products company Avadim Technologies announced plans in 2016 to employ 551 people at a plant to be built near the interchange. Work has yet to begin.

Black Mountain mayor Mike Sobol has said the new proposal will have less impact on Blue Ridge Road, decreasing the amount of traffic it will draw through residential areas.

The interchange did not immediately return to DOT’s funding plans after the board of aldermen’s about-face, and a previous version of DOT’s master plan called for construction to begin in 2023.

The most recent version moves that date up to 2021.

Road construction funding in North Carolina is tied closely to the state gas tax and vehicle sales. Lower gas prices and more fuel-efficient vehicles made it difficult for the state to draw in enough gas tax revenue to build roads called for in DOT plans a few years ago.

DOT’s funding picture has brightened more recently, however, as the General Assembly has gradually eliminated a significant transfer of highway money to the state’s general fund that had reached $216 million or more a year and limited how low the gas tax can fall. Legislators have also raised fees paid to the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Black Mountain officials’ change of mind was the main reason DOT put the interchange back on its priority list, said Rick Tipton, division construction engineer for the agency.

The DOT master plan says the new project will involve widening the short section of Blue Ridge Road between U.S. 70 and I-40 to three lanes and other, unspecified improvements to part of Blue Ridge Road south of I-40.

“We’re really just starting (planning) work on it, trying to determine what it would look like,” Tipton said.

Questions like how the interchange will be configured, what changes will be made to Blue Ridge Road and how many homes would be affected are yet to be decided, he said.

Edd and Paula Buchanan remember what the last proposal for an I-40/Blue Ridge Road interchange looked like: A ramp would have been built right through their home.

The impact of the project on people like the Buchanans was Koebernik’s only misgiving about the interchange.

Like many people around Black Mountain, she calls Edd Buchanan, who is 82, “the honey man.” He has about 150 beehives on his property immediately to the south of I-40 and sets out jars of honey on the back porch for sale on the honor system.

The Buchanans have lived in their home for 50 years. They say it is a certainty that an interchange will result in the home’s removal. They have no idea where they will go once it is torn down, they said.

They attended every town meeting on the project a decade ago to oppose it, Paula Buchanan said. This time, they are resigned to the idea — more or less — but neither is happy about it.

“I know we need it,” said Edd Buchanan, who used to work for DOT. “Well, that’s life,” he added later.

“I think it’s the worst thing,” Paula Buchanan said. “When the state can come in and throw you out of your house, it’s not good. It’ll break your heart.”