The transportation system serving the GroWNC study area has been (and will continue to be) greatly influenced by the region’s geographic features/topography, especially the mountainous terrain. Historically, settlements developed along rivers and in the relatively flat valleys they created. Travel routes also located in these corridors, both to serve individual settlements and to connect distant destinations.
While the population grew over time, the amount of relatively flat land did not. Farmland, homes, and business establishments, as well as roads and rail lines, often competed for the same limited supply of relatively flat land in the larger river valleys. Scattered development farther up in the mountains was served by steep, narrow, winding roads that climbed out of the valleys, sometimes threading their way over a pass to the next valley, but more often returning to the same valley, or simply ending somewhere on the mountainside. This pattern continued over time, and is evident today.
Topography, geology, and hydrology combine to dramatically increase the cost of building and maintaining transportation infrastructure in Western North Carolina, relative to costs for similar facilities in eastern regions. For example, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) planning level estimates assume construction costs in the Piedmont are 15 percent higher than in the Coastal Region; equivalent costs in the Mountain Region are 100 percent to 150 percent higher.
Given the relatively high costs of building and maintaining additional roadway capacity in Western North Carolina, strategies to actively manage congestion and reduce the demand for car and truck travel appear to be more economically attractive and sustainable here than in other metropolitan areas with fewer topographic constraints. The combination of rising costs and diminishing benefits is making major highway construction programs more difficult to justify. Basically, all the easiest roads have been built—further expansion of the roadway network will become more expensive and disruptive. There are usually good reasons why a “needed” road hasn’t been built at a particular location.
Transportation in the mountains is not limited to a discussion of the road network. The complete network includes transit, rail, pedestrian, bicycle, and air facilities.
Transit. Currently, there are only two fixed-route transit systems in the GroWNC region. Asheville Transit provides service to the greater Asheville area and to the Asheville Regional Airport. Apple Country Transit operates fixed-route service in the Hendersonville area, with one route that connects to the Asheville Regional Airport. In addition, each of the five counties in the GroWNC region has its own county-wide transit agency, which provides demand-responsive services throughout the individual county, and some out-of-county trips for medical purposes.
Rail. Currently, train transportation in the GroWNC study area is limited to freight service on four Norfolk Southern rail lines that converge in Asheville. The principal commodity carried is coal. However, NCDOT has adopted an incremental approach for ultimately extending rail service from Salisbury to Asheville and Western North Carolina. This plan includes the construction or renovation of train stations incorporating other uses that serve the community, as well as safety and track improvements that would ultimately be needed to provide passenger service to Western North Carolina.
Pedestrian. Pedestrian facilities are generally present in most of the municipalities in the GroWNC study area, particularly in the downtowns of the cities and towns in the regions. The presence of sidewalks is less likely in areas further from downtowns, and rural areas often lack any pedestrian facilities. Even in areas with pedestrian infrastructure, gaps in the network, connectivity and access issues, substandard design, and poor maintenance are often problems. Many of the counties and jurisdictions within the region have plans in place to address pedestrian needs. In addition to sidewalk facilities, many communities throughout the region have made significant investment in greenway and trail infrastructure. For example, the City of Asheville currently has 4.3 miles of greenways, with plans to develop a 15-mile network.
Bicycling. Bicycle infrastructure, such as bike lanes and wide shoulder areas, are not as prevalent as pedestrian infrastructure in the GroWNC region. Bicyclists can coexist with other modes on the road, and additional facilities are not always necessary or appropriate. However, adding facilities can improve safety and increase bicycle use throughout the region. There is concerted effort in many of the jurisdictions to improve on- and off-road bicycling facilities. For example, the Asheville Comprehensive Bicycle Plan proposes a 181-mile network of bicycle facilities. Transylvania County also recognizes the value of a complete bicycle network, and has developed an entire economic development strategy around bike facilities in the county.
Air. Most aviation in the region centers on the Asheville Regional Airport (AVL). It is the primary airport not only for the greater Asheville region, but for much of Western North Carolina. Nearly all of the study area is within an hour’s drive of the airport. In addition to the Asheville Regional Airport, there are several privately owned and operated airports and airfields serving the region. With the exception of the Hendersonville Airport, they are all private use. While some have paved runways, many are turf. Most are unattended and have limited or no navigational aids. Availability of fuel and other services is typically limited. There are no airports or airfields in Haywood County.
Nevertheless, most travel in this region occurs in private vehicles on an extensive and varied network of roads. Given the extent and nature of existing development, and of the economy it supports and is supported by, this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. Cars are the dominant mode by a significant margin, and reasonable accommodation of safe and efficient car and truck travel will be vital for the region’s continued prosperity and growth. Cost-effective investment to preserve and improve this infrastructure and to enhance its operations will be required to provide a function that is critical to the region's economy and its people. At the same time, great care must be taken to minimize environmental impacts, recognizing the potentially disruptive impacts of road construction and traffic on the built and natural environments, and to maintain a balanced range of options for all travelers.
Read more about this theme in the Accessibility & Connectivity section (pdf) of the Regional Plan.