In a passionate display of concern for pedestrian safety, more than 250 residents packed a special City Council meeting called to address the lack of sidewalks in east Asheville. About 150 more were turned away from the Aug. 31 session after fire marshals deemed Groce United Methodist Church’s Asbury Hall to have reached full capacity.
Chris Pelly, president of the Haw Creek Community Association, led things off, noting: "It's clear by the turnout here that the lack of sidewalks affects everybody. We want to help City Council find a solution."
Pelly’s video presentation highlighted studies showing that the east Asheville neighborhoods on both sides of Tunnel Road collectively contain only 3 percent of the city’s sidewalks. “This doesn’t mean people are not walking along Tunnel Road — it just means they are not walking safely,” he pointed out.
The video also documented the ongoing efforts of the East Asheville Sidewalk Initiative, a group Pelly helped pull together several months ago to win the support of city leaders for their cause. More than 100 residents turned out for the group’s April "sidewalk summit," attracting the attention of City Council members as well as city and state transportation staffers. At that gathering, city Transportation Director Ken Putnam urged the group to draft a list prioritizing the areas most in need of improvements (see “Pedestrian Predicaments,” April 28 Xpress).
The residents immediately took that advice to heart, quickly zeroing in on a 0.9-mile stretch of Tunnel Road between the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry's Veterans Restoration Quarters and the VA Medical Center. Later in the summit, ABCCM staffer Stan Vincent explained that some 200 residents, many of them disabled, walk between the Restoration Quarters and the VA hospital daily. Many residents say the stretch — dubbed the "goat trail" because the vets have worn a path along the steep hillsides bordering the road — is dangerous.
In May, more than 200 marchers walked the path in another attempt to focus local officials’ attention on the problem. Among them was Restoration Quarters resident Darryl Sparrow, who described the trail as treacherously narrow and rocky.
"You could slip in the creek or the road,” he noted. “Hopefully it won’t take someone getting hurt or killed before they do something; I’ve had close calls myself.”
Council members sympathetic; budget tight
Judging by Council members’ reactions to Pelly’s presentation, the Sidewalk Initiative’s well-publicized efforts appear to have had the intended effect.
"We know we're going to have to dig deeper to make a bigger impact on these issues than we have in the past," Vice Mayor Brownie Newman said to huge applause. "I think we're very creative in finding funding to make things happen. But we need to be investing more than $50,000 a year in sidewalks."
City staff and Council members went on to discuss a wide variety of potential funding options, including a bond referendum and re-allocating the roughly $14 million that Council member Cecil Bothwell said the city is considering spending on a Biltmore Avenue parking deck.
"That's a huge decision that's coming up this fall," noted Bothwell. "That $14 million is going to come out of transit money that could be used for sidewalks. It could be used for bike lanes. It could be used for greenways. It could be used for a shuttle system downtown. There's lots of ways to use that money besides putting more cars downtown...
"I think sidewalks would be a better use of that money," he concluded to thunderous applause.
Council member Gordon Smith stressed that the sidewalk issue will be a priority at the Oct. 8 infrastructure retreat, when city leaders will discuss a wide range of potential capital-improvement projects.
"I'm really looking forward to Oct. 8, because it's going to be rubber-hitting-the-road time, and we're going to have to find some solutions for you," said Smith. "I want you to know that I think everyone up here on this Council wants to be able to provide you with walkable, bikeable, livable neighborhoods."
In the meantime, several Council members also urged residents to appeal to county, state and federal officials for help in funding the needed improvements.
"Almost every solution takes our county's participation, our state Legislature's participation, our federal government's participation," said Council member Esther Manheimer. "All of those things are at issue. … It's pretty complex."
Bothwell concurred, noting that in North Carolina, "State government controls a lot of what cities can do. It's an election year: Talk to the candidates running for state office in your voting district and ask them about these issues…
“Because unless the state helps us out here, we can't go it alone in this city. You can't pay for the sidewalks yourself; you can't get 200 miles of sidewalks out of your dime."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.