When new bikers show up for his weekly ride in Waynesville, Cecil Yount pulls out all the stops: a riveting trip through town to Super Wal-Mart and back.
While lacking in scenery, Yount is sending a message to the cyclists — look how easy it is to bike to the store.
Yount’s regular jaunts down South Main Street give him a rare insight on traffic, one he hopes to impart as the town crafts a vision for a South Main makeover. Namely, Yount doesn’t think the street needs to be much wider than it already is.
“I have yet to see the need for four lanes of traffic,” Yount said. “There have been fairly minimal times I have spent sitting waiting on a light. I just don’t see it.”
Yount, the chair of Bicycle Haywood NC, plans to be front and center at a road design workshop next Tuesday when the town will collect input on South Main from the community.
Perhaps it’s no surprise a cyclist wants a quainter road, one with slower traffic, wide sidewalks, shady trees, and not as many lanes for cars.
But even development interests aren’t necessarily clamoring for more lanes, even though South Main sports the ultimate magnet for commercial sprawl. Property owners raced to put their lots on the market when Super Wal-Mart came to town three years ago. They are still waiting for the boon, although real estate experts claim it will come to fruition sooner or later and has merely been sidelined by the recession.
Brian Noland, a Realtor with RE/MAX Mountain Realty, represents half a dozen sellers marketing their property for commercial development along South Main. His office sits on South Main, making Noland another authority when it comes to sizing up traffic needs on the road.
His verdict: three lanes would do nicely, perhaps even with roundabouts instead of the standard stoplights.
When asked whether South Main seems congested, Noland paused, then answered, “I don’t think it is.”
To be sure, he wheeled around and asked his coworkers in the office. Not congested, they concurred.
Noland believes South Main will eventually be home to a row of fast-food restaurants, drug stores and retail. But he wants to keep “our hometown image.”
But Noland is also trying to protect the lots he’s marketing. More lanes will eat into the property fronting South Main and make the lots harder to develop, he said.
That’s also why he’s a fan of roundabouts. Traffic lights equal turn lanes for stacks of cars to pile up while waiting for their signal. Those turn lanes add to the road’s width and encroach on precious commercial lots.
Roundabouts, on the other hand, keep traffic moving and don’t need turn lanes for cars to queue up in, Noland said.
Waynesville has two roundabouts, which were initially met with skepticism but in practice have been well received.
“I didn’t like them immediately when I moved here because they were new, but they really move the traffic through,” Noland said.
Road designers with the N.C. Department of Transportation are conducting their own feasibility study of South Main concurrently with the town, and have proposed a large four-lane road with a center median.
“I think everyone has been assuming that is what will happen there, that it will be four lanes,” said Paul Benson, Waynesville’s town planner.
But Benson said the DOT plan is too big and too wide for the town’s tastes. Town leaders want a more tailored vision, designed in keeping with smart growth principles and walkable community ideals.
“DOT strictly stuck with just a road and trying to get people through the area as fast as efficiently as they could,” said Mark Teague, a private traffic engineer consultant in Waynesville.
That’s largely what led the town to pursue a feasibility study of its own. The independent feasibility study will cost $55,000, with 80 percent of the cost paid for with a federal planning grant.
Yount is pleased the town is rejecting the DOT’s feasibility study and doing one of its own.
“I think the DOT study is going to do nothing more than create another Russ Avenue and that’s the last thing this town needs,” Yount said. “The philosophy needs to change from ‘Let’s move cars as quickly as we can’ to ‘Let’s have smart transportation alternatives and livable streets.’ We may need to de-emphasize moving a single car from one point to another.”
To most, anything will be better than the status quo. South Main doesn’t exactly look the part of a booming commercial district. It is pockmarked by boarded-up windows, weed-engulfed parking lots, cracked pavement — even concertina wire around one windowless cinder block building.
“That is not what Waynesville is all about,” said Ron Reid, the owner of Andon-Reid Bed and Breakfast. “That corridor just needs help. It needs to be cleaned up.”
Reid winces to think about tourists coming to Waynesville for the first time via South Main.
Reid, also a member of the town’s planning board, wants the usual pedestrian-friendly features of street trees, sidewalks, perhaps a planted median.
“I really envision something halfway between what Russ Avenue is and what our downtown district is,” Reid said.
Bull by the horns
Fred Baker, the town’s public works director, said the DOT’s feasibility study doesn’t live up to the town’s design standards.
For example, the town requires a row of street trees in between the sidewalk and road, while the DOT plan puts the trees on the far side of the sidewalk. The rationale: so swerving cars don’t run into the trees. But surely that’s better than hitting pedestrians, Baker said.
It might seem like a small detail, but whether street trees go between the sidewalk and road rather than the far side of the sidewalk speaks volumes to the road’s character.
“It gives you that sense of security on the sidewalk that you could relax,” Baker said.
There’s several points like this where the DOT’s proposed design diverges from the town’s street standards.
Waynesville’s standards call for bike lanes, but the DOT left them out, instead making the outside car lane a couple of feet wider so bicycles can “share the road.”
Another incongruity: Waynesville’s standards call for ?-feet-wide sidewalk but the DOT’s plan called for only ? feet.
Baker said he will lobby hard for the town’s higher standards.
But the DOT may ask the town to foot the bill for these as perks. When the town wanted a multi-use path included in the widening of Howell Mill Road a few years ago, hoping to fill in a missing gap of the Richland Creek greenway, the DOT told the town it would have to pick up the tab for the extra right-of-way required for a multiuse path. It was half a million the town didn’t have, Baker said.
“Ultimately when DOT starts buying right-of-way, it charges the town for the extra width for all these things,” Baker said.
Baker hopes that will change by the time a South Main makeover becomes a reality, citing the complete streets movement that is infiltrating the DOT.
More lanes will make it harder to also squeeze in the town’s desired bike lanes, wider sidewalks, a planting strip with street trees
“It would be nice if we could get away with three lanes,” Benson said.
All in the numbers
But ultimately, whatever plan the town comes up with will need DOT buy-in, since the DOT holds the road-building purse strings.
DOT will have to be convinced that the road is wide enough to handle projected traffic, Benson said. Benson is anxious to get a look at the latest traffic counts for South Main, being conducted as part of the town’s process.
Those traffic counts — data on not just the number of cars moving along the road, but also where they are turning in and out — will be used to predict future traffic, which in turn will make or break the number of lanes.
Mark Teague, a traffic engineer consultant who used to work for the DOT, has been conducting counts up and the down the road for weeks in preparation for the public design workshop next week.
The real heavy lifting, however, will be coming up with a road design that amalgamates everyone’s visions.
“We are serving a lot of different groups, the residents who live and work on the road, the people who drive on it, bikes and pedestrians. We have a lot of different groups of people who are unrelated,” Teague said. “It is a balance.”
Share your vision
A community brainstorming session to gather ideas and visions for South Main Street in Waynesville will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
“Residents all throughout Waynesville use this space,” said Rodney Porter, a consultant with La Quatra Bonci, facilitating the town’s new street plan for South Main. “When the public is in charge of what they want to see their roads look like, the outcome is a little bit better.”
Drop in anytime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to explore maps and road images and offer comments during an open charette-style planning session. Porter will give a presentation on the project starting at 8:30 a.m., and at 9:30 a.m. there will be a design workshop to kick off the charette session.
Held at the West Waynesville Campus of Haywood Community College on South Main (the old Dayco Union Hall across the street from the Verizon Wireless store.)