My commentary on the proposed 51 Biltmore parking deck appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Friday, Jan. 7.
Asheville is poised to stumble into a colossal financial blunder.
The proposed $14.8 million, 51 Biltmore parking deck is an ill-considered idea whose time has passed. The plan is based on a parking study which failed to consider alternatives (shuttles or a trolley) and took no note of rising fuel costs (with gas prices headed for $3.75 soon and $5 in the not-distant future.) When gas hit $4 two years ago, we saw a 25 percent increase in transit ridership. What kind of “parking study” ignores such facts?
To make matters worse, the 220-space net gain at 51 Biltmore amounts to more than $65,000 each. The new Buncombe County deck ran $17,000 apiece — the difference is boggling.
During the recession the cities where property values most collapsed are automobile-dependent Las Vegas, Phoenix and Detroit, while the U.S. city where property values rose the most is Portland, Oregon, widely known for its trolley, light rail, bike routes and other amenities that permit people to access downtown without cars.
We have been lucky to get some sidewalk help from the state this year. But the state is facing a multi-billion dollar shortfall that will continue into the future. We’ve been lucky to have some federal funding for buses. But there is no guarantee that more federal largesse is forthcoming in the ongoing financial crisis.
Our fiscal planning should assume that we are on our own to an extent we haven’t seen for decades, at least. Putting all of our transit eggs in one basket is completely irresponsible. And despite my requests starting a year ago for a study that considered alternatives, no meaningful consideration of shuttles or trolleys has been forthcoming from city staff or our paid consultants.
Finally, we have committed as a council and as a community to attempt sweeping cuts in carbon emissions. When we borrow $15 million to accommodate automobiles, we are choosing the unsustainable over the sustainable. We are making it harder to access downtown without a car, instead of making it easier for tourists, shoppers and workers to frequent our city. We are increasing the effects of climate change — a change already upon us. Warm air holds more moisture, so we have longer droughts, more intense rain events and flooding, and heavier dumps of snow. Floods and blizzards are not aberrational, they are the new normal. (Maybe some of that transit money should be held back to hire workers with snow shovels?)
We need to be honest with the people of this city. This deal means dedicating all of our transit money for the next 10 years and a significant portion for 25 — money that could be used in much better ways. By committing to this project, Asheville will say “no” to any meaningful increase in sidewalk construction, we will say “no” to a downtown trolley or electric shuttle system that could be powered with local energy, we will say “no” to maintaining flexibility in our transit planning.