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Stimulus funds boost WNC mass transit

Mass transit is set to get a boost in Western North Carolina thanks to some economic stimulus money targeted for park and ride and carpooling lots.

The Region 14 DOT office in Sylva was recently awarded $460,000 for several projects. One will be the completion of a park and ride lot and shelter at Exit 33 off I-40 in Haywood County, an idea that has been batted around for some time. The rest of the funds will go toward sprucing up lots in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties that already serve as unofficial carpooling meet-up points.

DOT will administer the work for all projects. The agency was the one that requested the funds.

“We decided it was a good opportunity for the stimulus program to promote and enhance carpooling in WNC,” said Joel Setzer, Division 14 engineer.


Novel idea

The idea for a park and ride lot that would take commuters between Haywood and Buncombe counties originated some months ago. Representatives from various agencies like DOT, Mountain Projects, Haywood Community College, the Haywood Chamber of Commerce, the county Economic Development Commission and N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, were involved in the talks.

According to commuter patterns, taking on such a project made sense.

“Of the workforce in Haywood, about 9,000 people that live in the county commute outside the county every day,” said Mark Clasby, chair of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission. “Of those, about 4,000 commute to Buncombe County. Establishing a park and ride on the east side of the county would be beneficial to those in that area.”

Mountain Projects offered to supply the bus or van to transport passengers. The DOT was commissioned to search for the perfect site.

“We looked at several locations around Exit 31, but they were going to need some work and we had to buy land,” said Setzer. “So we started looking at other places with enough existing property to build one.”

The DOT finally settled on Exit 33, where it had an existing right of way. Although a site had been located, there was no money to get the project off the ground — until DOT applied for stimulus funding.

“We had not identified the funds. It was a concept and potential project that didn’t have any funding. The stimulus program is a big help,” said Setzer.

When completed, the Haywood Park and Ride will have 25 parking spaces and a shelter, Setzer said. Though Mountain Projects was not awarded a stimulus request to expand its number of vehicles, “I think we can probably accommodate it with our existing fleet,” said Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Dowling.

Details such as where stops will be located in Buncombe County are still to be worked out, said Clasby.


Helping grow

The rest of the money will fund improvements to ride share or carpool lots in Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties. The lots have already been established, but not by the DOT.

“A lot of these have existed for many years, so it’s not a new kind of concept. We’ll be promoting an old concept,” Setzer explained.

The lots have sprung up over the years as good unofficial meet-up points for carpooling.

“Neighbors just talk to neighbors and decide a good place to meet generally. Folks want a safe place, a place where they don’t get their vehicle broken into,” said Setzer.

There are two lots targeted for improvements in each county. In Jackson, the lots are located at the intersection of U.S. 23 and U.S. 441 near Dillsboro; and off N.C. 107 at the southern end of Western Carolina University.

In Macon, the lots are located at the intersection of U.S. 64 and Sloan Road, and at the intersection of U.S. 441/23 and Sanderstown, near Iotla.

In Swain, the lots are located at the Alarka and Veterans Boulevard exits off U.S. 74.

The number of people carpooling at any given time fluctuates. Setzer said he noticed it was more popular in the 1970s, during the gas shortage. Then it gradually fell off. Carpooling spiked again last year with the rise in gas prices, and is starting to become more popular overall, Setzer said. Right now, the lots average between six and 10 cars per day.

The DOT plans to make the entrances to the carpooling lots safer, pave the lots, and put up signage to identify and guide people in and out of them. Setzer says signs “may also help to promote the concept throughout the region.”

Will the three counties eventually get a park and ride system like that being established in Haywood County? Setzer says its possible.

“If there’s enough people that want these services and there’s funds to pay for the services, I can imagine that will happen. Right now, transit in WNC is kind of in it’s early stages,” Setzer said.

Setzer said the DOT has not yet received the money, but expects to receive authorization to proceed with construction on the project soon.

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