Photo: Bill Sanders, Asheville Citizen-Times
John Boyles, Asheville Citizen-Times
This is the opinion of John Boyle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Every day I drive the Bowen Bridge in and out of Asheville, I just assume I'm taking my life into my hands.
I've driven in a lot of big cities, and I've got to say this is about the worst-designed piece of roadway out there.
The tragic death of Asheville Police Officer Rob Bingaman, whose cruiser went up and over a guardrail and plunged 50 feet or so, only highlights the danger of this span. Bingaman, 37 and a six-year veteran of the police force, died in the Tuesday wreck as he was heading westbound.
The investigation is ongoing, and at least one witness said Bingaman was traveling fast, and with no lights or siren on, when he apparently swerved to avoid a car coming into his lane. We don't know if he was speeding or distracted, so it's hard to pin the wreck on the design of the roadway.
But I and thousands of others users can tell you what a nightmare Bowen Bridge is to travel every day, especially during rush hours, and just how often people come into your lane. The essential problem is that the bridge carries traffic from a city street, Patton Avenue, and an interstate, simultaneously, and those vehicles often are traveling at much different speeds and trying to cross several lanes of traffic in a short distance to get where they're going.
For instance, if you're traveling east into the city and want to get on Future Interstate 26, you've got to move over three lanes within a few hundreds yards, dodging traffic that is coming from Patton Avenue and often heading into the city. If those folks want to continue on Patton Avenue in the city, they've got to move over to the right. You can also stay on I-240.
It's a similar story traveling westbound, with Patton Avenue, I-240 and Future 26 all feeding into the bridge, and motorists often swerving, dodging and slamming on the brakes. Add in a setting sun as you go westbound in the afternoon, and it's not a trip for the faint of heart.
"If you haven't had a near miss on that bridge, you don't live here," Lynn Caroli Rapp said when I solicited readers' opinions about the bridge on Facebook.
"I go far out of my way to avoid that death trap," Anne Tanner said.
Celine Lurey said she breaks into "a sweaty mess" when she drives it and always has a fight "with the hubby going over the bridge.
"Oy vey, they are coming fast and furious from everywhere!" Lurey said. "Will go to West Asheville via Greenville if I have to."
A few people said they drive it often and have never had a wreck, mainly because they're extra cautious and studiously avoid tailgating. But most said they've had near misses or avoid it if possible.
"I feel more safe on Central Expressway in Dallas, Texas, at rush hour - driven about a year ago - than I do driving twice a day over Jeff Bowen Bridge," said Tracy Dowd Hyorth. "Central has probably more than 250,000-plus cars in 12 lanes for miles and miles, but drivers use blinkers. A strange concept in Asheville."
Bowen Bridge is the busiest highway in the state west of Gastonia, with an average of 99,000 vehicles a day last year, according to DOT figures.
While I've seen dozens of wrecks on the bridge shortly after they've happened, wreck statistics were much lower than I suspected. The Asheville office of the N.C. Department of Transportation said the two spans saw 10 wrecks in 2012, nine in 2011, 11 in 2010 and seven in 2009.
Those numbers address only wrecks on the spans, not the roadway leading up to them or the treacherous westbound ramp onto I-240 known as "Jackson Curve." Many minor wrecks also go unreported, officials said.
But while the numbers were lower than I expected, the rate of wrecks there is high.
"In the four-year period from 2006-2009, the crash rate was five times higher than the statewide average for similar facilities," said Rick Tipton, division construction engineer with the DOT's Asheville office.
Anyone who's been around Asheville for a while is familiar with the long, glacial tale of the I-26 connector project, the near-mythical proposal that would connect I-26 south of Asheville and Future 26 north of the city - and replace the troubled Bowen Bridge or repurpose it. Discussion of a connector project first surfaced after the General Assembly in 1989 included an urban loop project in Asheville on the list of potential highway projects.
Since then, a lot of work - and $14.2 million on planning and land acquisition - has gone into the project, but nothing has happened.
In 2010, the DOT, using a formula that factored in cost, traffic congestion, economic impact, travel distance saved and projected traffic volume, dropped the connector project to third from last for 21 urban loop projects. But earlier this year, local business leaders and government officials renewed the push for a connector, even bending Gov. Pat McCrory's ear about it.
It's not like this is all DOT's fault. The local community has never been able to reach consensus about the connector project, with some Asheville administrations stalling or delaying it and plenty of folks voicing concerns about potential widening in West Asheville.
The latest state plans call for a wider I-240 project in West Asheville to begin in 2020, but they don't contain any funding for a bypass of Bowen Bridge or improvements to the I-40/I-26/I-240 interchange west of town.
It is an incredibly complicated issue, with no easy solution, and I'm not trying to lay blame on anyone in particular.
But as Rebekah Braswell, who witnessed Officer Bingaman's wreck, told me, the roadway across the French Broad River remains a "nightmare" to drive.
"I don't know what a solution would be for it, just because the biggest problem is the amount of traffic that goes on the bridge," said Braswell, 23 and a UNC Asheville student who drives the span nearly every day. "When the police officer was coming onto the bridge, the big problem was there was so much traffic and a car was coming into his lane. And his speed was a factor. But there was nothing he could do."
Braswell, a Leicester resident, said she's witnessed the officer's wreck and "several fender benders, or moderate wrecks" on the bridge or nearby in the past few months.
"Sometimes, I take the long way home to avoid the bridge, because I don't want to deal with it," she said.
That is just not a good long-term solution. In short, doing nothing is just not an option.