After more than a year of back-and-forth about how to widen N.C. Highway 191 through Mills River, plans are solidifying for it to become a five-lane highway after town leaders voted Thursday on the project’s design.
Town Council adopted a resolution formally requesting the N.C. Department of Transportation choose a five-lane design for widening Highway 191 from state Highway 280 to Mountain Road, with $7.5 million in right-of-way acquisition slated for June 2019 and the $45 million construction for 2021.
Ten residents spoke out about the project Thursday night in the council's standing room-only meeting room.
Jim Foster, a town resident and consistent critic of the project, expressed fears that the widening to four lanes would bring in development and create another Four Seasons Boulevard or something similar to Asheville.
“I say to everyone, grab your camera and go out and make lots of pictures of one of the best places in the country to live, because if this disaster happens, that is all you will have to remember the quiet, rural atmosphere we all love,” he said.
Foster pushed officials to slow the project down, to improve Highway 191 with turn lanes and a roundabout at School House Road, and to lower the speed limit past that intersection to 35 mph toward Mills River.
Dan McCutchan, speaking in opposition, presented the lengthy NCDOT assessment for the project, noting that the Transportation Department factored in the all-but-dead Balfour Parkway in forecasting traffic counts.
With Henderson County and the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization having voted against the Balfour Parkway, McCutchan said he’s left to wonder “why a superhighway through a rural community makes any sense at all.”
Speakers touched on the high level of opposition to the project and the successful opposition of Balfour Parkway. They urged the public to speak out, pushed for the town to urge the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization to withdraw support and expressed concerns over increased development, safety and more.
Georgia Hudson said she had spoken to hundreds of people opposed to the project, including the proposal for five lanes, and urged council members to oppose it as well.
Ken Stephenson said the need for improvements is there and growth is inevitable, but he stopped short of explicitly supporting the project in his comments to council. He said that several years ago a small group of people and a judge stopped the widening of Interstate 26, and now people are begging for it.
After tense discussion with regular and emotional outbursts from the crowd, the council voted 4-1 to support a five-lane plan. Councilman Roger Snyder cast the opposing vote.
Councilman Brian Caskey, before making the motion to approve the resolution, spoke of the unique needs of the area, with active agricultural businesses and families taking children to school, and the opportunity to negotiate with the state on the details.
NCDOT has proposed a four-lane, median-separated highway that has been met with opposition from local businesses and farmers — who need equipment to cross the street between facilities — and from residents who oppose not being able to turn left from their neighborhoods.
In December 2016, Town Council voiced its preference for a five-lane highway design with bike lanes and no sidewalks when asked to provide input to the Henderson County Transportation Advisory Committee and state Transportation Department.
In April, Council called for a three-lane highway with unobstructed center lane from School House Road to Banner Farm Road, and a four-lane highway with unobstructed center turn lane from Banner Farm Road to N.C. Highway 280.
But last month, NCDOT Division 14 Engineer Brian Burch said with current traffic loads and traffic projections 10 and 20 years out, NCDOT couldn't support a three-lane road.
Traffic congestion is projected to grow from the current 12,400 vehicles per day to 15,700 vehicles per day between Highway 280 and Banner Farm Road by 2030, and to 17,100 by 2040.
Thursday night, Burch showed a plan for five 12-foot lanes with two 5-foot bike lanes on either side, saying that the bike paths could be eliminated or inside lanes narrowed to 11 feet to minimize the effects along the corridor.
That cross-section also includes a planned multi-use path along the route.
Burch said the state could accommodate Town Council requests for landscaping along the multi-use path for aesthetics and more plantings as barriers for the neighborhoods along the route.
Snyder said the method NCDOT uses to determine which projects get into the state transportation plan, with only 30 percent input from local governments, seemed “weighted against local people.”
Burch said there’s another process with several rounds of public input where plans get adjusted.
Snyder threw his support behind the unobstructed three-lane roadway.
Burch said NCDOT will now begin to work with the town to clarify exactly what details of the plan it would like to see, and that those changes would be applied within town limits.