By Henry Culvyhouse
The Daily Independent
ASHLAND A series of traffic roundabouts and rear-angled parking are on the menu for renovations on Winchester Avenue in the coming years, per a presentation made Thursday at the Ashland City Commission meeting.
The idea behind the move is to continue the push toward making downtown Ashland a destination spot for the area, where people could spend an afternoon dining and shopping. On Thursday, that idea got a bit more concrete when Stephen Sewell, an engineer with Palmer Engineering, presented finds and proposed plans made from a recent traffic study.
Mayor Matthew B. Perkins said the updates have been needed for a long time.
“For years, people have said Ashland needs to update its image and look to keep up with the times,” Perkins said. “I think this project is a symbol of our dedication to that and making downtown more walkable and accessible for all.”
Perkins continued, “I am proud of our staff for moving forward on this.”
Commissioner Josh Blanton said the move is a way to change “the skeleton of the body” for the city of Ashland.
“If we can modify the skeleton, more creative things will rise from it,” Blanton said.
Commisioner Cheryl Spriggs said she’s excited “about the whole ball of wax.”
“I am thrilled because this has been a long time coming,” Spriggs said. “It’s a big part of the puzzle for what we need to do in order to revitalize our downtown. I’m just so happy to see this moving forward.”
From Greenville to Ashland
The seed for the plans began in 2019, when members of the Ashland Alliance and other local officials took a tour of downtown Greenville, South Carolina. City Commissioner Amanda Clark organized the trip, because of the similarities Greenville shares with Ashland.
“Like us, they had a major employer leave town and they were left with trying to figure out what to do next,” Clark said. “They did a dedicated master plan to determine what their main streets would be and literally moved bridges to make this happen.”
Over the last 15 to 20 years, Greenville has worked diligently to improve its downtown space, becoming a model for cities across the country, Clark said. In fact, about 50 cities a year send delegations to the town of 67,000 to learn from Greenville’s successes and failures, Clark said.
“They’re very open and are always willing to share the knowledge,” Clark said. “We didn’t want to be another Greenville, we want to be the best Ashland we can be. But what we can do is take what we learned from them and apply what works.”
When Clark came back from the trip, she presented some findings — principally, making downtown a more pedestrian friendly space — to the commission. Tucked away in her Power Point presentation was a picture of Greenville prior to the renovation downtown, Clark said.
“It looked very similar to Ashland today,” she said. “But then you see the practices they put into place and you can see how they’ve been successful.”
It’s something Perkins, a small business owner in downtown, has seen in a microcosm in downtown. Whenever he’s rolled out merchandise onto the sidewalk, Perkins said he’s seen an uptick in foot traffic and people stopping to shop.
“We’ve noticed that when we’ve done sidewalk sales, people will pull over to take a look,” Perkins said. “If we can do something with more scenery and greenery to facilitate that, we’ll see a lot more of that in the future. Our business is making sure our small businesses do well in our city. If we want investment, we as a city need to invest.”
Blanton, who lives in downtown, said he’s heard feedback from the business community that a change like this could benefit the area.
“I know from talking with small business owners in downtown, anything we can do to get people out there walking around will help them tremendously,” Blanton said. “It’s about getting them plugged into what we’re doing.”
Spriggs said the plans to slim down Winchester — called “traffic dieting” in the industry — is a big win for downtown stores.
“It’s safer for people to walk around, so that’s beneficial to our downtown merchants, because it’s more comfortable for everyone to walk around,” Spriggs said. “People aren’t buying from these stores in their cars.”
Following Clark’s presentation, the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission reached out to the city with grant money to study Ashland’s traffic.
At the time, what city leaders had in mind was slimming Winchester Avenue down from four lanes to two and to introduce angled parking. KYOVA, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the city of Ashland sat down to discuss the study, ultimately selecting Palmer Associates, who gave Thursday’s presentation.
City Commissioner Marty Gute, whose grandfather owned a store on Winchester Avenue, is quick to point out that the city’s main artery hasn’t always been a four-laner.
“In the ‘30s and the ‘40s, it was all two lane with angled parking,” Gute said. “In the early ‘50s, maybe mid-50s, that’s when they changed it to four lanes. So this idea isn’t really new in Ashland.”
But when the idea — two lanes and angled, front parking was proposed in the past — Gute said it went up like a lead balloon.
“There’s been many meetings on this and it’s always come to a stand still,” Gute said. “Now we have the right chemistry on the commission and the city building. It’s like the Tomcats here in basketball and football. We suddenly just have the right group in place.”
And like those Tomcats — who wound up taking a state championship in football last year and going to the final four in the state tournament this year — the city is shooting for the moon in terms of renovating Winchester.
One of the biggest obstacles in the past toward changing the traffic flow, according to Perkins, was funding.
“It’s all about the money,” Perkins said. “In the past there were concerns about doing this from the general fund, but now we’re looking at federal and state dollars that could potentially partially or even fully fund this.”
Perkins continued, “One of the biggest concerns about doing it in the general fund would be cutting resources to needed city services.”
Clark said getting on the same page and getting the money lined out has been the work of the better part of two decades. In 2007, a traffic survey was commissioned and in 2015 another one was commissioned, according to Clark.
“Each time, it’s been like, ‘well, you could do it,’ but there wasn’t much behind it,” Clark said. “I have been involved since my first term in getting this going, but it’s been really frustrating trying to make it happen. I wouldn’t have stayed on this if it wasn’t proven as a best practice for economic development.”
Clark continued, “There’s never been a cohesive idea on this. I think there wasn’t as much willingness in the past to give a little and take a little, but I think for the first time we have a commission and a city staff who are seeing this as a part of an entire vision for downtown.”
Spriggs said in her terms on the commission, when it was just angled two lanes and angled parking on the menu, there were concerns raised about increasing accidents.
“Our police department at the time had their concerns and we heard a lot of concerns from our senior citizens about backing out,” she said. “But if you look at Carter Avenue, we have some angled parking there and I don’t hear about a lot of accidents.”
Too hot, too cold, just right
At Thursday’s meeting, Sewell laid out the plans for transforming downtown from a four-lane highway running through the center to a safe and walkable destination spot.
“When I presented these plans to the safety director for Kentucky Transportation, he called it the trifecta: roundabouts, back-in parking and traffic dieting,” Sewell said. “He said if we pull all this together, this could become a pilot for the state.”
Sewell said his engineering firm studied traffic counts on Winchester and adjacent streets, along with travel times to get from point A to point B and crash analyses. The basic goals of the plans were putting traffic on a diet — meaning, slimming the lanes from four lanes to two — and introducing angled parking between 13th and 18th Streets along Winchester, Sewell said.
“Keeping that in mind, we did not want to do anything to impede flow and we wanted to improve safety of downtown traffic and walkability,” he said.
In addition to traffic flow — which Sewell said running through the plans, they doubled the numbers to account for future traffic growth — the firm also looked at parking spots. With 799 spots in the study area, Sewell said they looked at peak times during the workday, wherein they found 200 are occupied at all those times. Looking at the plans, Sewell said he wanted to see how parking could either be increased or maintained.
From there, three plans were developed, Sewell said.
Plan No. 1 would be front, angled parking along Winchester Avenue, with a portion dedicated to a bike lane. Traffic lanes would be slimmed down from four lanes to two, with traffic lights maintained at the intersections. At the bridge — a mess Sewell jokingly offered to fix, but admitted none of the plans address — a right turn lane would be available for easier access.
As far as pedestrian safety is concerned, the corners would be “bulbed out” — meaning protruding out into the road so the walk across the street is shorter — and there would be crosswalks in the middle of the block.
Plan one would add three additional parking spaces, Sewell said.
Of the plans, Sewell said plan one comes with the cheapest price tag, at $2.9 million.
Plan two would see the implementation of four traffic roundabouts — at the intersections of Winchester at 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th streets, with back-in rear-angled parking. The roundabouts would be 50 feet from edge to edge, with an angled 4-to-6 inch raise so trucks could pop over it with a trailer if need be, Sewell said.
“I have to admit, I was a little nervous in proposing this one because it is a lot change, but I think the data shows the roundabouts are the safest and most efficient way to keep the traffic flowing,” Sewell said.
Sewell said he tried everything he could to get a traffic circle to fit at the intersection of 16th Street and Winchester, however, it couldn’t work because of the construction of Broadway Square. Instead, under plan two, that intersection would be open, with trafficking coming from 16th Street needing to stop before crossing Winchester, Sewell said.
Like plan one, plan two would have mid-block cross walks and bulbed out street corners, according to Sewell.
Plan two comes with a price tag of $3.5 million, Sewell said.
Like Goldilocks and the porridge, plan three is just right for the taste buds of city officials. With essentially the same layout as plan two — and the same price — plan three would rejigger a couple of issues left unaddressed in plan two.
Again, it’s four roundabouts, with 16th Street going without and rear-angled parking.
The principle difference is at 16th Street, Sewell said the plans call for a traffic divider to be placed in the center of the intersection, which would prevent traffic from directly coming across Winchester. This feature was added for safety, Sewell noted.
Instead, traffic will have to turn onto their corresponding lane and go to the next roundabout to turn around if they were intending on hanging a left, according to Sewell.
To help with preventing congestion at the block before the bridge, Sewell said plan three would also turn 14th Street from one-way back to two-way traffic.
Running the plans through the models, the roundabouts show a grade A or B in terms of level of service — ease of getting through it — whereas the roundabout-less plan has a snarl in before the bridge, Sewell noted.
“There’s plenty of capacity here, so if congestion doubled, this model shows it would handle it,” Sewell
Sewell said the rear-angled parking business adds ease to shoppers downtown.
“It’s like parallel parking, in that you pull ahead of the space, flip your turn signal, then back in,” Sewell said. “However, you won’t have to turn all the way. With most modern cars having backup cameras, this shouldn’t be an issue.”
In addition to the ease, there’s a safety factor as well, according to Sewell.
“If you have unloading for a business or you just bought something and you’re putting it in your trunk, you’re not on the road risking getting sideswiped like with front-end parking,” he said. “You can just load or unload from the curb. Plus, the door acts as a barrier for small children — if your kids are like mine, as soon they get out of the car, they want to run. So that door blocking them makes them want to run to the sidewalk and not the road.”
Sewell went on, “When it’s time to leave, you don’t have to back out into moving traffic. All you have to do is look left, flip your signal and turn out. It’s easier and safer.”
If the stars align and funding gets secured on the project, Sewell anticipated plan three being completed within six months.
Will they like it?
Of course, with change comes skepticism — after all, roundabouts aren’t necessarily a fixture in the wider Tri-State region. If the project the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is undertaking on the Rowan-Bath county line is any indicator, people definitely have their opinions.
On April 1, KYTC released footage on its Facebook page of a roundabout in Michigan, stating it is akin to what they’re about to undertake at the intersection of Ky. 801 and U.S. 60. With more than 100 comments and counting, many folks voiced opposition to the plan, calling it a waste of money and unsafe. Other folks chimed in, stating they are safer.
According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, roundabouts reduced overall collisions by 37%, injury collisions by 75% and fatal crashes by 90%.
With one roundabout drawing the ire of folks in Rowan, four in the center of downtown Ashland is liable to cause a reaction — either positive or negative, according to Clark.
“The public is going to react either way and one thing I’ve learned on the commission is there is always a very vocal opposition towards anything we do,” Clark said. “We can’t chance our future on that when it’s been proven over and over that making downtown more pedestrian friendly is what has worked.”
Perkins said the fear of change is always a hurdle to overcome when the city undertakes a major project.
“As elected officials, the public has tasked us with seeing that we trying something different,” Perkins said. “If we don’t try something different, we don’t know if it will work. Fear of change is something we deal with whenever we do stuff with construction, but ultimately our city is all the better for it on the other side.”
Blanton, a freshman commissioner, said presenting this to the public and going through the criticism is perfectly fine, because he had to go through that process himself.
“Whenever I present something at work that’s a little outside the box to my boss, I use data to back that up,” Blanton said. “I looked at the numbers and I saw that it’s going to work. I did my own research and found many towns across the country where it worked not just for developing downtown, but making downtown safer.”
Blanton continued, “I think it’s required we put the information out there to the public and the ones who actually want to understand will take a look at it. There’s others who will not look at the data and will not consider the possibility. That’s OK. As elected officials, we have to make decisions based on what’s best for the city, even if it’s unpopular.”
As the longest serving city commissioner, Gute said he knows there’s going to be opposition to the project.
“We anticipate that, but that’s why we had the engineering firm come in and publicly present this to the commission,” Gute said. “Our city departments — the roads, police and development — are unified behind this. There’s going to be opposition to this because it’s new, but I believe we’re on the path to be a gold standard for the entire state in terms of revitalizing a downtown district.”
Gute said education is key for the project’s success.
“It’s going to take time to educate the public about the new traffic patterns, about how these roundabouts work,” Gute said. “You have to have thick skin in this job, but I think once the public sees the benefits, they will become accustomed to it.”
Spriggs said she feels pretty optimistic that the plan will be well received.
“I think people are going to love it,” she said. “I think it might take some getting used to for some people, but I think when they see how this will energize downtown, they will love it. Of course, there’s some people who will have some reticence about it because it’s change.”
Spriggs added, “Constructive criticism is always good, so I welcome any comments we may get from the public.”
The next steps in the project, according to Sewell and City Manager Mike Graese, are to have public comment on the plan, secure funding, get the final design pinned down and put the project to bid.
Graese said the city is working to see what funding opportunities the project could get from the federal and state governments, as well as what can be found in the city budget.
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