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Wednesday, 28 March 2012 20:19

Public input counts, but for how much, in road ranking

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There’s no clear winner in a complex and multifarious new system for ranking roads projects when it comes to the ongoing debate over Sylva’s main commercial drag.

In just-release road rankings, redesigning N.C. 107 out ranked the competing proposal to build a new highway bypass around it — but just barely.

The two dueling projects — redesigning N.C. 107 versus building a bypass to divert traffic from it — ranked second and third on a wish list of road building projects for the six western-most counties, with 45 and 44 points respectively.

The near tie means controversy is bound to continue over the best way to address perceived congestion on Sylva’s thoroughfare.

The two projects are neck and neck in the ranking process, despite a strong message by local leaders that they overwhelming prefer to rework N.C. 107. A regional transportation committee comprised of leaders from the six western counties got to weigh in on the road ranking — and in doing so awarded reworking N.C. 107 the maximum number of points it could.

By contrast, the regional leaders awarded zero points to the concept of a bypass around N.C. 107.

The bypass was catapulted forward anyway, however, thanks to heavily weighted points injected into the ranking process by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Sarah Graham, a transportation planner and community liaison for the Southwestern Planning Commission, sees the ranking process as a success for public input, even though the preference of local leaders was nearly outstripped by DOT’s own rankings.

“The conversation we have going on now is of improvements to the current road, compared to a few years ago when the conversation going on was whether or not we wanted a (bypass),” Graham said. “The community said we want to see what it would take to improve 107 before you build a new 107.”

Indeed, community input got the idea of reworking N.C. 107 put on the list in the first place, and then advanced it forward.

But, some Jackson County leaders are discouraged that their input into the ranking process, which showed a clear preference for reworking N.C. 107 over a bypass, got watered down after the state DOT was done with the list.

“It is frustrating to see that a project the county planning board and the county commissioners ranked very low to score so highly on the statewide ranking,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner. “It made the time the county commissioners and planning board put into reviewing the projects and ranking them seem to be wasted and it felt as though our input was given much consideration.”

 

Point jockeying

The road rankings were done under a new system launched last year that is supposed to be objective and data-driven. The DOT awards its points based on several predefined variables. The old process was considered subjective, determined in part simply by the preferences of politically appointed DOT board members.

Gov. Beverly Perdue ushered in the new system, as one of many state government reforms aimed at transparency and ending political corruption.

“It is a scientific approach that would remove so much of the politics involved in funding transportation and try to infuse the process with more science and more local input,” Graham said.

The ranking process can be a bit daunting to the novice, however.

The final list is a mish-mash of rankings by local leaders, the local DOT office and state DOT planners. Each has its own system for awarding points. Points are also weighted, so the points awarded by the state DOT office count for a greater share of the total than those awarded by local leaders.

The system is still relatively new, but local leaders on the regional transportation committee have already figured out a way to game the system and try make their points count more.

Since the DOT’s block of points are weighted more heavily, input by local leaders can only carry a project so far. The regional committee is given a block of 1,300 point to divvy up among its favorite road projects, with the caveat that it can’t award more than 100 of the points to a single project.

Last year, the regional transportation committee carefully spread their allotted bank of points among a long list of road projects, splitting hairs over how many points each project should get out of the total 1,300 they had to work with.

Their balancing act ended up being for naught once the DOT added its points to the mix, however. The preferences of local leaders were watered down once the DOT plunked its more valuable points into the mix.

So this year, the local leaders on the regional transportation task force decided to game the system. Instead of spreading their allotted points around to lots of different projects, they dedicated all their points to a handful of top projects and gave zero to the rest.

In the end, they got more bang for their points.

“They realized you have to work together to get your projects moved up the ladder,” Graham said. “They said, ‘let’s give 100 points, the most we can give, to our top projects and start pushing them up faster.’ If we are going to be given some say, we want it to mean the most.”

Graham said the transportation planning committees across the state have caught on to the strategy as well.

Convoluted? Perhaps.

But, public input actually had an influence in the state’s road project rankings, so Graham sees it as a success.

“If we had not put improvements to 107 on the list and given it 100 points, it would not have been on there at all,” Graham said.

The rankings are all well and good, but the question ultimately is which ones will get money.

“We don’t really know how much money is going to be applied,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. “What everybody wants to know is what is going to get worked on. We don’t know that yet.”

Technically, building a bypass is further along in the planning process than reworking N.C. 107. The alternative of reworking N.C. 107 emerged only a few years ago, while the idea of a bypass dates back two decades and has been inching ahead, albeit slowly.

“It is already in the development stage,” Setzer said.

But, “there is very little work being done on it,” he added.

Now, it is unclear whether that work should be halted, and the money put toward reworking N.C. 107 instead.

“We can’t hopscotch around the priority list,” Setzer said. “Because of the rankings, we can’t continue to work on the planning of the 107 (bypass) without addressing this potential project to widen existing 107 because widening existing 107 ranked higher.”

 

Devil in the details

While Setzer refers to the project as “widening” 107, that’s not what local leaders who requested the project would call it. They want traffic flow improved, but in their book, that doesn’t necessarily mean a carte blanche widening.

In fact, that highlights a source of contention between the community and DOT over what exactly a “reworked” N.C. 107 would look like.

DOT did a cursory plan for reworking N.C. 107 that calls for wider lanes, more lanes, bigger intersections and medians. The new footprint would be so wide it would take out nearly every business lining the commercial thoroughfare.

Local leaders and the business community believed there had to be another option for reworking 107, however.

“They didn’t like what the DOT suggested,” Graham said. “They said we don’t want the study defined for us. We don’t like the way it was defined for us.”

So a task force of town and county leaders, along with local business owners, hopes to come up with a more tenable solution. It has been meeting for a few months.

“There wasn’t really a clear vision of what had to be done with 107,” said Chris Matheson, a Sylva town board member and business owner. “There’s a lot more to consider than how to get from the light at 107 to the high school quicker. We are finding out just how complicated it is.”

Opinions on the committee vary on the extent of the congestion — which will ultimately frame out much of a “fix” the road needs.

Randy Hooper, owner of Bryson’s Farm Supply, doesn’t think traffic is that bad judging by his own commute.

“I can leave here in the afternoon and be home in 15 minutes. Twenty years ago, I could do the same thing,” said Hooper. “It takes no longer to get back and forth to work now as it did 20 years ago.”

The goal of the task force is to speak with one voice on what the community wants a “reworked” 107 to look like.

“We need our community leaders to be backing a single vision. We hope the corridor study will create the community consensus so as we move this project up the funding ladder we can say, ‘This is our vision. Help us fund it,’” Graham said.

Setzer agreed consensus is currently lacking.

“We are polarized right now on what we think we need to do, as a community,” Setzer said.

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