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For Russ Avenue redesign, Waynesville wants a Cadillac, DOT counters with a Buick

fr russaveA grandiose plan to remake Waynesville’s Russ Avenue commercial corridor into a tree-lined boulevard has gotten a little less grandiose.

An $18 million redesign of Russ Avenue is about to enter the planning stages, but the town has been told by the N.C. Department of Transportation to pare down its wish list.

“The state only gives us so much width to get the sidewalks and bike paths and medians and street trees in. We have to figure out how to squeeze it in,” Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said. 

A community-driven vision for Russ Avenue was crafted several years ago. It calls for the ultimate trifecta in smart road planning — to unsnarl congestion, improve visual appeal and make way for sidewalks and bike lanes.

But the town has learned the design it commissioned for Russ Avenue with a $40,000 transportation planning grant has more bells and whistles than the DOT is willing to pay for, and the town would have to foot the bill for features the DOT deems to be extras.

“The DOT said ‘Here are the elements you have shown us, but the problem is we will only put so many elements in,’” Brown said.

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The DOT met with town officials last month in hopes of getting on the same page before the design phase got underway.

“Hopefully with a clear vision we won’t be chasing alternatives that people turn around down the road and say ‘that’s not what we had in mind,’” said Joel Setzer, assistant division engineer for a 10-county area that includes Haywood.

However, that’s not to say the town’s Russ Avenue makeover plan was for naught.

“It was a great precursor to the work we are getting ready to undertake,” Setzer said. “The planning document the town did for Russ Avenue is a valuable stepping stone for the development of this project.”

Town Planner Elizabeth Teague said Waynesville is in a better negotiating position with DOT thanks to the plan it crafted previously.

“Waynesville was very strategic in trying to get out in front,” Teague said.

Having a plan has moved the needle closer to what the town wants than not having a plan at all.

“It attempted to capture a vision,” Setzer said. “We felt like it was helpful in defining what the expectations of the project were.”

Giving the local community a voice — let alone putting them in the driver’s seat — isn’t the old-school DOT some may remember. There’s been a gradual paradigm shift in how the DOT approaches road building, Teague said.

“There was this whole trend of planning that asked DOT to do context sensitive solutions,” Teague said. “How a highway passes through a community affects the economy. It creates the streetscape that is either in character with the town or is not. I think DOT has really tried to adjust to that paradigm shift.”

Teague said it is critical from a policy standpoint that DOT’s stated process gives deference to locally adopted plans like the one the town did for Russ Avenue.

“You don’t always get an opportunity like this where DOT comes in and says ‘You’ve made a plan, we are going to try to accommodate it,’” she said.


A median for Russ

As the DOT works to marry the town’s goals for Russ Avenue with what’s feasible under DOT standards, one thing has jumped out for Setzer.

“You can see it is not so much a concern of congestion as a sense of place and safety,” Setzer said.

Luckily, the same strategies deployed to give Russ Avenue a sense of place will do double duty to improve traffic flow, Teague said.

One thing that’s universally agreed on by the town and the DOT: Russ Avenue’s middle turn lane has to go. It will be replaced by a median, preventing drivers from making harried left turns across lanes of oncoming traffic to satisfy their fast-food cravings.

On one hand, a median would cut off access to businesses on the opposite side the road. But a series of designated U-turns at stop lights would instead allow drivers to double back — and ultimately be less nerve-wracking than camping out in the left turn lane waiting for a break in rush hour traffic.

“There is a tipping point when it is too hard to get to a business you decide not to go there,” Teague said.

Another strategy is creating a grid network, with a secondary parallel road running behind businesses, so drivers hopping from one place to another don’t have to come back out onto Russ Avenue only to turn off again.

A grid system of side streets and a rear access road would be an escape valve for Russ.

But town leaders were disappointed to learn the DOT didn’t see the grid system as something it could justify under the banner of a Russ redesign.

So that vision will take longer to accomplish in piecemeal fashion, by encouraging businesses to connect their parking lots with each other.

“It is incumbent on us as a community to find a way to create these connectors,” Brown said.

Another goal is to make Russ Avenue more accommodating to bikers and walkers.

“What we are looking at is overall connectivity of the whole town. This corridor is one piece of a larger puzzle,” Teague said. “And this project is an opportunity to look at the big picture and say, ‘What needs to happen right here that connects to our larger goals?’”


Let the horse-trading begin

The biggest enemy in a Russ redesign is space: figuring out how to fit the features of a better road into essentially the same footprint as the old one.

There’s a caveat. If the town is willing to chip in on the cost, it could get more of what it wants. But town leaders decided they weren’t willing to open their wallets, and would try to work within the allowed confines.

The key to a compromise is whether the DOT is willing to be flexible with the footprint allowance.

“Right now the town is trying to barter a little bit with the DOT to see how much we can get out of our cross section,” Teague said.

In a two-hour conference between town leaders and DOT reps last month, DOT wanted to know what the town valued most if they couldn’t get everything that was in their plan. Town leaders had two weeks’ turn-around time to get back to the DOT — rather short notice compared to the construction timeline that’s still seven years out.

The town’s new engineer and new planner went to work to develop schematics to show the town board the following week.

“There is a discrepancy between the design we adopted and what the DOT can pay for,” Town Manager Marcy Onieal told the town board. “They need our feedback right away.”

However, the town board ran into one conundrum after another as they hemmed and hawed over what they valued most. A wider sidewalk versus a row of street trees? A separate bike lane and sidewalk versus a mashed-up multi-use path? Designated bike lanes versus a share-the-road approach?


Sidewalks remain an unresolved element 

The town wants 8-foot-wide sidewalks, but DOT will pay for a only 5-foot sidewalk. If the town wants more than the basic 5 feet, it will have to pay for the additional width. Even if the town settles for 5-foot sidewalks, the DOT will still pay for only 70 percent of the cost, with the town forced to pick up the remaining 30 percent.

The DOT will pay for the full cost of bike lanes, however, and that gave town leaders an idea.

Could they wrest extra sidewalk width from the bike lane allowance, by combining them into a single multi-use path paralleling the road?

Town leaders mulled that idea, but weren’t sure that the benefits of a wider sidewalk justified giving up a designated bike lane.

Town leaders also contemplated stealing width from the buffer separating the edge of the road and the sidewalk. The DOT allows for a 5-foot buffer, which could feasibly be whittled down to make room for a wider sidewalk. 

But a narrower buffer strip has drawbacks. It wouldn’t be wide enough for a row of street trees, and Waynesville loves its street trees. Besides, the buffer strip provides critical separation between the cars zooming past and the sidewalk where people are walking.

“As a walker, if I have something between me and traffic, I feel better,” Brown said. “At this point in time there are not a lot of pedestrians on Russ Avenue. But in 30 years there might be.”

Landscaping will be a major area of negotiation as well. The DOT told the town that beautification elements like street trees lining the road and a landscaped median would come at a cost. The town would have to pay for street trees, and if it wants a landscaped median in lieu of a concrete one, the town would not only have to pay for it but agree to tend to it in perpetuity.


What next?

The finish line for Russ Avenue’s makeover is years away. The timetable calls for right-of-way acquisition in 2020.

It will be a couple of years before the DOT develops design mock-ups for the public to weigh in on.

Brown said he is pleased that Russ Avenue made the DOT’s short list.

“When I saw it had been approved I was absolutely taken aback,” Brown said.

Russ Avenue rose to the top of road projects to be undertaken in the region during last year’s transportation ranking process. 

Road projects are awarded points for various criteria, from crashes to congestion. Local priorities are also factored into the ranking, and that’s what helped Russ win out.

“There is a lot of folks that travel Russ Avenue,” Setzer said, citing a traffic count of 23,000 cars a day. “It serves so many citizens and there was strong local support to do something.”

As for not getting the town’s dream Russ?

“I am not going to leave half a loaf on the table because I can’t get the whole one,” Brown said.

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