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Wednesday, 25 April 2007 00:00

Leaders, citizens demand input as road plan progresses

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After a two-year lull, debate over a controversial expressway through Jackson County known as the Southern Loop could soon re-emerge.

 

The Department of Transportation has launched the planning phase for a cross-county highway that would bisect N.C. 107 somewhere between Sylva and Cullowhee with an overpass and freeway interchange. The news came as a surprise last week to elected leaders and residents who thought the new highway was on hold pending a comprehensive transportation plan.

The Southern Loop has been on the DOT’s “to-do” list for years. The recent development marks a significant bump in its status, however. The DOT had been quiet on the Southern Loop for more than two years, downplaying the new highway in the wake of public controversy that spanned several years.

“They kept telling us there is no money for this, don’t worry about it, it’s not going to happen,” said Jason Kimenker, owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva. Kimenker helped form a local group called Smart Roads Alliance in 2002 to fight the Southern Loop.

The DOT corralled the many voices clamoring over the Southern Loop — most of them opponents — into a transportation task force in 2003 with the mission of developing a comprehensive transportation plan. Many opponents put their faith in the task force to develop alternatives to traffic congestion on N.C. 107 and Business 23 that didn’t include a new cross-country expressway. The task force frizzled out shortly after it was initiated, however.

Local leaders were unaware that planning for the Southern Loop had been launched. They said they would like to be involved as the process moves forward.

“I certainly think the community needs to be involved, and I have faith DOT will do that,” said Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver.

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie said the Southern Loop would have a big impact on the county, and the commissioners should be kept informed.

“This board of county commissioners has been concerned with growth management issues and roads are part of that. We need to be consulted on this and have some input because it affects what we are trying to do,” said Massie.

Kimenker said he always suspected the DOT was moving forward with the Southern Loop on the side, but is disappointed nonetheless that the planning phase has been launched.

“This is absolutely not what the public wants. This is what DOT wants,” said Kimenker.

Kimenker said there is a spirit of activism in Jackson County right now to protect the rural way of life and the mountains. The county recently passed a moratorium on new subdivisions and is writing development regulations poised to become the most protective of any in Western North Carolina. Kimenker anticipates the same movement will rally in opposition to the Southern Loop.

“So many people are concerned and care — people who have grown up here their whole lives and the newcomers alike,” Kimenker said.

Others are pleased the DOT has started the planning phase, such as Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan, who lives in Webster.

“I think it is good news for the county,” Cowan said. “The traffic jams are starting to happen at times of day when you just wouldn’t expect it. I don’t think we have an alternative. We need a new highway. I think it will help tremendously.”

Cowan said he doesn’t prefer one route over another, but hopes the DOT doesn’t spend too many years in the planning stage.

“I just want them to get on with it,” Cowan said.

 

No other solution

Joel Setzer, the head of the DOT for the 10 western counties, said the construction of a new highway is the only solution to traffic congestion on N.C. 107. In addition to fast-food joints and big-box stores like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart slowing down the works on N.C. 107, it is the only artery serving a large portion of the county.

“There isn’t an alternative that can accommodate the traffic on 107,” Setzer said. “It is like trying to get a certain amount of water through a four-inch pipe. It comes a time when you have so much water you can’t force it through.”

Setzer said if someone does have an alternative, they can bring it forward at any time.

“Anybody that has an idea that is feasible that will carry the traffic projected for 107, we will listen to it,” Setzer said. “Give me an idea of something that will handle that growth and we would look at it.”

The Smart Roads Alliance actually tried that. They hired a national traffic consultant who specializes in techniques for unclogging five-lane roads and brought him to Jackson County to see N.C. 107. His verdict: it was possible to unclog without building a new by-pass. The techniques are known as access management. (See “What is access management?” on page 10 for a description.)

“These are traffic techniques that are being used all over this country and are working. They absolutely work,” Kimenker said.

But Setzer disagreed, saying it would not work on N.C. 107.

“They have offered an alternative, but they have not offered an alternative that will accommodate the growth,” Setzer said of the Smart Roads Alliance. “We are open for alternatives. But what is smart roads? Their plans about access management for 107 — and that’s really the only idea I have heard — that won’t accommodate the growth.”

Kimenker questioned how Setzer knows this since the DOT has not developed any models that show whether the techniques would work or not.

“They haven’t even studied it. They haven’t even looked it,” Kimenker said.

“They are glancing over any possibility of a fix because they already have a solution in mind. They have been letting this road get so bad so people will throw their arms up and say, ‘I give up we need a new road.’”

Jeanette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Café in Cullowhee and a member of Smart Roads Alliance, doesn’t think the Southern Loop will be a magic bullet for alleviating traffic back-ups on N.C. 107.

“The solution should come from many different sources. There isn’t going to be one solution, but many incremental solutions, lots of small solutions instead of one big solution that is going to come and fix everything,” Evans said.

 

Public involvement

The planning phase for the Southern Loop will be coordinated in Raleigh. Setzer said the planning could take 10 years, and even that is an optimistic timeline. During this prolonged planning phase, Setzer said there will be opportunity for public input.

“Anyone that is against this endeavor needs to make their voices heard, and we will listen as we proceed with the planning,” Setzer said.

Exactly how the public or local officials can make their voices heard at this stage is unclear, however. There will be public hearings, but only after the planning phase is well under way.

The first step for DOT is picking routes to study. Routes that make the study list will be assessed for their pros and cons — from environmental impacts to costs. It is not certain whether alternatives to a new freeway, such as extra lanes on N.C. 107 and better intersections, will be included in the study list.

Public input typically doesn’t come until after DOT has selected the routes and alternative solutions — if any — that will be studied. If a route or alternative doesn’t make the list, it doesn’t get studied, and the public can’t chose it as their preferred option when it’s finally time for the public to weigh in.

Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver encouraged DOT to look at the big picture when developing its study list.

“I think we have to look at the whole thing and take everything into consideration,” said Oliver. “I think we have to look at all the roads in and around Sylva that feed into the major thoroughfares, as well as the thoroughfares themselves, to get some indication where the bottlenecks are.”

Despite Setzer’s assertions that the Southern Loop is the only solution, the DOT project engineer in charge of the planning phase said alternatives will make the study list. Traffic solutions that don’t involve a brand-new highway will “absolutely” be studied in the planning phase, according to Ryan White, a project planning engineer with the DOT in Raleigh.

“We would take a hard, solid look at improving existing roads,” White said.

White said the DOT has a congestion management team that could examine techniques for improving traffic on N.C. 107 and Business 23.

“We want to make sure we get the best bang for our buck and make sure we are accomplishing the purpose and need of the project,” White said. “We would definitely look at improving the existing roadways, which sometimes can be a better answer. We will look at trouble spot areas in the town that could be improved.”

If the DOT didn’t include a viable alternative on the study list, it could give opponents to the Southern Loop legal fodder to challenge a decision to build the highway.

“That would move us all the way back to the beginning,” White said.

 

What about 107

Opponents to the Southern Loop question how much a cross-county expressway would improve traffic congestion on N.C. 107. Some suggest it will actually dump more traffic on N.C. 107. When drivers get off the Southern Loop, they will still take N.C. 107 to get where they’re going, whether that’s Western Carolina University, downtown Sylva or Wal-Mart.

“It is going to dump traffic on the same stretch everybody is complaining about it,” said Jim Aust, Sylva’s town planner who has studied the issue extensively.

The DOT’s feasibility study of the Southern Loop predicts that even if the Southern Loop is built, traffic will get worse on N.C. 107 between now and 2025. The study claims the average delay at the intersection of N.C. 107 and Business 23 during peak afternoon hours will double from 52 seconds to 108 seconds — even with the Southern Loop.

Without the Southern Loop, DOT predicted back-ups of more than 6 minutes during peak times at the intersection of N.C. 107 and Business 23 by the year 2025. The public will likely get to see if the DOT’s predictions play out. Setzer predicted at least a 10-year planning phase. Right-of-way and construction could take another five years or more, pushing up against the year 2025.

That’s why Kimenker said traffic management on N.C. 107 should be studied.

“It is very important that Highway 107 be addressed by itself, parallel to or before anything is done about the consideration of an additional roadway,” Kimenker said. “For long enough this road has been a festering wound in this county. We know its broken, and we as municipalities and citizens have asked for a repair.”

For starters, the DOT should figure out exactly where traffic is going to and from along N.C. 107, Kimenker said.

“Right now we are guessing,” Kimenker said.

Currently no plans for examining traffic solutions on N.C. 107, other than the Southern Loop, are on the DOT’s to-do list.

“There is nothing planned for 107 other than resurfacing,” Setzer said.

 

By the wayside

The idea for a Southern Loop has been on the books since the early 1990s when it first appeared in a long-range thoroughfare plan by the DOT. In 2001, the DOT announced that it would conduct a feasibility study. A feasibility study is the first sign the DOT is getting serious about an idea, spawning an organized opposition movement against the Southern Loop.

Residents formed a group called the Smart Roads Alliance, while the elected leaders of Sylva, Webster and Dillsboro passed resolutions against the Southern Loop. The opponents collectively called for a new, more holistic strategy to transportation for Jackson County.

The DOT corralled the numerous voices into a task force to do just that. The task force would partner with the DOT in creating a comprehensive transportation plan — one that would possibly identify alternatives to the Southern Loop.

Jeanette Evans, a member of the task force and Smart Roads Alliance, said the creation of the task force and its mission seemed encouraging at the time.

“I thought there was a lot of community support. We thought we built a lot of great momentum,” said Evans. “The transportation task force was starting to meet and we felt like we would really be doing things. We still had to push it and keep the momentum going, but we felt that we had really built something.”

That was nearly four years ago, however. Today, the task force exists only on paper and the comprehensive transportation plan has yet to be started — thwarted by several forces along the way.

The first hurdle came after the first couple of task force meetings.

DOT policy required a growth plan before developing a comprehensive transportation plan. The growth plan would identify where future growth would occur and how much. So the county and towns retreated to their respective drawing boards and spent about a year developing growth plans.

“It did give us some guidance,” Setzer said of the growth plans. “It gave us some hints as to what’s coming.”

The growth plan has actually fueled the DOT’s argument in favor of the Southern Loop. Setzer repeatedly cited future growth predicted in the county’s growth plan when talking about the need for the Southern Loop.

The towns and the county turned in their growth plans in early 2006, anticipating the work of the task force to gear back up. But it didn’t.

This time the DOT coordinator for the transportation task force had taken another job. The lack of a coordinator for the task force left it dead in the water. Meetings would occasionally be scheduled, but then canceled and new date never picked.

Evans is disappointed the task force has fallen by the wayside.

“I think the transportation task force still needs to meet. The community is the best one to decide what their transportation solutions need to be,” Evans said. “I don’t feel like it is a conspiracy. I just feel like this community wants to be part of the solution and help formulate something. I think there are a lot of resources in this community to come up with a great solution.” The task force had representation from Sylva, Webster, Dillsboro, Forest Hills, Jackson County, WCU, SCC and Smart Roads.

 

Not over yet

Kimenker, on the other hand, doesn’t trust the DOT’s motives in creating the task force then watching it flounder.

“I’m not surprised we haven’t heard anything since,” Kimenker said.

Kimenker said the transportation task force was led to believe it would have a voice in shaping a comprehensive transportation plan for the county — one that may or may not include a Southern Loop.

“The municipalities and the county did what was asked of them. The public did what was asked of them,” Kimenker said.

But it appears the DOT never intended to give up its Southern Loop plan, regardless of anything the task force came up with. Kimenker questioned whether the exercise — including the delays — was intended to distract those who were demanding more accountability for the DOT’s road building machine.

Once a new highway is on the DOT’s “to-do” list, it moves along in the queue, inching closer toward the top as other projects are finished and crossed off. The Southern Loop hit the first milestone in the queue several years ago when money was allocated for a feasibility study. The feasibility study determined the new highway was both feasible and needed, according to the DOT.

Just this year, the Southern Loop cleared another big hump. It graduated from an “unfunded” project to “funded” — albeit for the year 2013. The funding would allow the DOT to buy or condemn right-of-way for half the highway — the half connecting N.C 107 to U.S. 23-74. The other half — from N.C. 107 to U.S. 441 — is still “unfunded.”

Just because funding for right-of-way buyouts are listed on paper for the year 2013 doesn’t mean it will actually happen that year, Setzer explained. But now the mere designation as “funded” allows the DOT to start the planning phase, Setzer said.

Opponents to the Southern Loop have wanted to get the Southern Loop nixed from the DOT’s to-do list so the highway would never reach this stage. Every town in the county passed a resolution opposing the Southern Loop and calling for it to be removed from the list, Kimenker said.

“They said ‘We don’t want it on there. We want it off,’” Kimenker said. “Each year it still stays on. It is going through the back door.”

Sarah Smith, a transportation planner with the DOT in Raleigh, said the Southern Loop could have been removed from the list if the comprehensive transportation plan recommended another solution. But that is less likely now that the highway has graduated from “unfunded” to “funded.”

“If a project is unfunded, there shouldn’t be a problem altering the description or removing it from the (list),” Smith said. “If it has funding and it has been going through the planning process, that might be a little harder.”

While it might be too late to influence the Southern Loop, the impetus to develop a comprehensive transportation plan appears to have been rekindled.

The DOT recently assigned a new coordinator to work on a comprehensive transportation plan for Jackson County. The new coordinator, Elisabeth Reddic with the DOT planning division in Raleigh, said she is still brushing up on background and formulating a strategy to get started. Reddic said she is not sure what role the transportation task force will play, but that the “community will be engaged” in some form or fashion.

“We are not exactly sure how we are going to go about doing it,” Reddic said.

Ryan Sherby, a transportation planner for the six western counties with the Southwestern Commission’s Rural Planning Organization, will work with Reddic to coordinate the work.

Sherby said he would like to see the task force play a role.

“Personally I think we need to involve the transportation task force. I think it provides more of a vehicle for public input,” said Sherby, who is based in Sylva. Sherby said the comprehensive transportation plan should be driven locally rather than out of Raleigh.

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