ASHEVILLE – At a lively candidate forum Feb. 8, five of the eight Asheville City Council contenders talked transportation, lingering on its intersections with equity, infrastructure and housing. Prior to the forum itself, candidates also weighed in on recent hot topics, like Merrimon Avenue’s road diet and incoming downtown bike lanes.
The approaching March 5 primary will narrow the field of eight Asheville City Council candidates to six. The top vote-getters will move on to the general election in November.
The forum, held in the Cloud Room at the Wedge’s Foundy Street location, was hosted by nonprofit Asheville on Bikes. After a three-minute stump speech, candidates had 30 minutes to work the room before returning to the stage to relay what they had learned. The event drew about 85 people.
Three seats are open on City Council this cycle. Incumbents Kim Roney and Sage Turner are running for reelection. Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore, who holds the third open seat, announced she would not be running again. Turner was not present at the forum. Neither were candidates Iindia Pearson and Taylon Breeden.
The city is no stranger to divisive transportation discussions. It’s been ranked among the top cities in the state for pedestrian deaths, is bracing for the incoming $1.3 billion Interstate-26 Connector project, and thorny bike lane or road diet proposals have been among council’s most recent heated votes.
Over the summer, a presentation on downtown bike lanes, which came in the weeks prior to an eventual split approval of the College Street and Patton Avenue project, called into question the city’s priorities around multimodality.
Asheville on Bikes can often be found at the center of these debates. It does not endorse candidates, but advocates for policies and design standards to advance the city’s active transportation network. The organization was a proponent of both the Merrimon Avenue road diet, passed in May 2022, and the College/Patton bike lanes.
Who are the candidates?
Read full candidate responses to the Asheville on Bikes survey, including positions on Merrimon Avenue, discounted parking and bike lanes at their website at ashevilleonbikes.com.
CJ Domingo was born and raised in Asheville. He has worked in the service industry, at a grocery store, a pharmacy and with the city in parking services. Through his campaign, Domingo said he is seeking “affordable, functional and safe solutions,” while prioritizing housing, infrastructure and emergency services.
He said he used to take the bus everywhere when he was younger, but now his home and workplace “are both on the edges of the transit system.”
Tod Leaven is a veterans law attorney. He first moved to Asheville in 1985. Core city services, infrastructure and the elements that “make the city manageable,” Leaven named as his priorities.
“I know development can sometimes be a four-letter word in Asheville,” he said, “but if we really want to make Asheville the best bike city, the most pedestrian-friendly city, I think a great way to do that is to the concentration of development downtown.”
Kevan Frazier is the owner of Well Played Board Game Café in downtown. He lives in the Central Business District, is executive director of Western Carolina University’s programs in Asheville at Biltmore Park and an Asheville native.
“If we don’t move with intention, we will leave people behind,” Frazier said. While safety, homelessness and affordable housing were among his top issues to address, “I want to go to what undergirds all of that, and that’s equity. What helps undergird equity is access to transportation.”
Bo Hess is a licensed clinical social worker and addiction specialist. He’s an adjunct professor at Western Carolina University and lives downtown.
“Transportation issues and decisions affect everyone and everything,” Hess said. “They affect where we work, where we live, where we play. They affect our access to health and mental health.”
Hess said he was committed to integrated, complete cities and streets. “My platform also stands on community safety,” he said.
Kim Roney has spent the last 25 years as a music educator and lives in West Asheville. She was first elected to City Council in 2020.
“I fell in love with my city on the bus and on the sidewalk,” Roney said.
Roney said she has the courage to “say no” when faced with hard decision, with a goal of prioritizing “people and planet” in a city where “tourism has taken the lead, and extracts our natural resources, displaces our neighbors and burdens our infrastructure.”
“But gosh, I really want some things to say yes to,” Roney said, like: deeply affordable housing along transit corridors, community safety that sends “the right person with the right tools and training to meet the crisis at hand,” and community and neighborhood resiliency.
What did you learn?
Candidates returned to the stage after about 20 minutes spent speaking with attendees. As Leaven noted, he found people were passionate about parking, namely having less of it.
In the room, there was a push for reduced parking minimums, with higher requirements meaning bigger lots necessitated by incoming developments. Roney, in support of these reduced minimums, pointed to the city’s draft Missing Middle Housing study, which identified more than one space required per unit is considered a “barrier” to missing middle housing.
“I want to build affordable housing, not structured parking,” she said.
Frazier said he heard calls for more partnerships with the county, “true regional transit,” greater use of Mountain Mobility, a Buncombe County transportation system that provides ADA paratransit services, and solutions around often backed-up school pickup lines, which can easily clog surrounding streets.
When asked, “who we’re doing this for,” Frazier said, “We’re doing this for our neighbors. We’re not doing this for the folks who come visit.”
“We keep acting like this is luxury. Multimodal transportation is not a luxury. Sidewalks are not a luxury, bike lanes are not a luxury,” he said. “These are the things we have to commit to so that everybody has a way to get to where they need to.”
Hess stressed infrastructure needs, and said he heard calls for more bikeability and multimodality along sections of the I-26 Connector project, specifically as it connects with Patton Avenue, heading west into downtown.
“I know that we can do transit better,” Roney said. Of classism and racism being embedded into the city’s zoning practices, Roney said she’s excited for the work of the Community Reparations Commission, and said neighborhoods like Burton Street are already showing the city what it looks like to have a neighborhood plan, seek repair and build infrastructure while implementing anti-gentrification tools.
“They want the Smith Mill Creek Greenway, they want access to be able to bid on transportation projects and they want a resilient neighborhood,” she said. “And we all want that, because that benefits our whole community.”
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. Please support local, daily journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.