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Wednesday, 02 May 2007 00:00

Re-thinking transportation is a must

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Dark clouds were rolling in on Saturday as I sat in our Sylva office while Western North Carolina’s original environmental festival — Greening Up the Mountains — was in full swing on the streets below. With me were two idealists, people who want to change the way we think about transportation.

 

•••

It was the story in last week’s Smoky Mountain News about the southern loop through Jackson County that had gotten them fired up. The loop, an expressway that would stretch from U.S. 441 outside of Dillsboro to U.S. 23-74 near Scotts Creek, has moved onto the state’s Transportation Improvement Plan as a funded project. Though still years away, the road’s status as a funded project moves it much closer to eventual reality.

The controversy over this road has been unending. Many in Jackson County want state transportation officials to study other ways to alleviate traffic jams on N.C. 107, the artery that moves cars from downtown Sylva to Western Carolina University. They want a comprehensive plan that will weigh all alternatives equally, instead of just building bigger, faster, wider roads. Opponents of the road want the state to develop a thorough transportation plan for the entire county.

Others think the DOT should spend $10 or $20 million on making smaller changes all around Jackson County, including spending dollars on access management techniques up and down 107. See how that changes traffic patterns before putting hundreds of millions into the gargantuan southern loop.

Joel Setzer, the head of the regional DOT office, told The Smoky Mountain News that the bypass is the best and, perhaps, the only answer to the traffic woes plaguing Jackson County. The southern loop, as envisioned by DOT, would bisect the county by connecting U.S. 441 with U.S. 23-74, crossing N.C. 107 somewhere between Sylva and Cullowhee.

“There isn’t an alternative that can accommodate all the traffic on 107. 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.

•••

Road opponents are right. The DOT could spend its resources and find a different solution to N.C. 107’s problems. Access management — which basically is the use of smaller roads and other options to move cars instead of just dumping them all back on the main artery — would provide some relief.

But Setzer is also right, and it’s a damning indictment on all of us. The number of cars that travel N.C. 107 is huge. A traffic study last year put the number at 30,000 per day, making it one of the most congested roads west of Asheville. With the planned growth of WCU and Southwestern Community College, and the multitude of developments currently going up between Cullowhee and Cashiers, along with Sylva’s inevitable growth, things are going to clog up even worse than now.

But here’s one of the great ironies of the southern loop. Even the DOT says the road won’t solve all the problems, just help. Traffic back-ups won’t go away once this huge project is finished

It seems there is no way out.

•••

That’s where the idealists come in. Nothing breeds idealism like big problems. My suspicions are that we are breeding a plentiful supply in this country these days. With a war that is unwinnable and lacking in pubic support, staggering environmental challenges, and an economy that is facing fundamental changes, there’s plenty to worry about.

Idealists, by the way, are much more fun than pessimists, those folks who wring their hands and get consumed with fear when they look at all the bad things going on. Idealists wrap their arms around big problems and squeeze out solutions, see a bright future where now there may be dark clouds.

Avram Friedman, executive director of the clean air advocacy group the Canary Coalition, and Odell Thompson, a Jackson County architect, come at the southern loop from that perspective.

“If this bypass is 20 years away, cars may not even be practical then,” said Thompson last Saturday. “We need to look forward, not backward.”

With that, the two laid out their idea for a statewide light rail system — they prefer a monorail for its reduced environmental impact and its aesthetic appeal — connecting the University of North Carolina system. I’d heard of their plan before, but had never taken the opportunity to discuss it at length with the two.

According to their vision, small rural communities are blocked from developing mass transit programs because of the cost. However, if a state and federally funded light rail system provided the backbone — with the network spanning the state by reaching to Boone, Cullowhee, Pembroke, Wilmington, Greenville and Elizabeth City, all UNC schools — then the local governments could contribute to the local nodes.

These would be park-and-ride locations, small depots and bus or trolley systems.

“I believe the local governments should be advocating for this system,” said Friedman. “It would give them something to plug in to.”

“If we isolate Jackson County, then we can’t solve the transportation problems” that are now addressed with solutions like the southern loop, said Thompson.

“The DOT said it wanted an alternative, and that’s what this is,” said Friedman, referring to a statement made by Setzer in last week’s article on the southern loop. “The concept of public transportation did not enter into the conversation.”

Thompson, sitting in his bike shorts with his two-wheeler just outside the door, ready for his trip back to Cullowhee, says some day we will have to drastically alter thinking.

“The biggest obstruction to ideas like these is the perceived privilege that we have the right to jump in our cars and go anywhere. It is a very short-term idea in terms of human evolution. It has occurred in just the last 50 years,” said Thompson.

Our conversation could have gone on for hours. We talked about the costs of public transportation, how the government subsidizes the auto industry and how the pollution from autos run up health care costs. One of the beauties of their idea is that it is tied to the university system, something the citizens of this state have always taken pride in and which is known as place where new, revolutionary ideas are embraced.

There’s also a practical side. Imagine if every family in the state who sends a child to college could do so without buying them a car. Take all their stuff to school and then let’em get home on the train.

OK.

The conversation was enlightening, but reality is sobering. Americans aren’t going to just change their way of life overnight. Something will have to give.

•••

It was dark as I drove my oldest daughter to swim team practice Monday morning while we listened to the business news on NPR. The economy was stagnating, they said, and growth was sluggish.

That triggered our conversation about capitalism, about how it depended on everything always growing, getting bigger, adding more jobs. That means more cars, more transportation needs, bigger roads, and more pollution. All those add to our problems.

I dropped her off at the pool and headed to the office. The car needed gas, and I winced at the thought of paying about $3 a gallon to fill up. This time, unlike what happened after Katrina, no one is raising hell about the surge in gas prices. They have just slowly risen.

And that is what will finally be the catalyst before ideas like those proposed by Friedman and Thompson become serious alternatives rather than just pie-in-the-sky ideas. Forget global warming or soaring health care costs associated with respiratory ailments, both caused by our transportation choices. Forget trying to change the minds of state and federal bureaucracies about designing revolutionary new transportation systems. While gas is still somewhere in the affordable range, it probably won’t happen.

We will get mass transit some day, but only when the economies of the world are forced to make the choice as a means of saving their butts. When gas is $10 a gallon, taking a train to Asheville suddenly seems a great idea. And Friedman and Thompson’s now quiet campaign will become a great idea.

•••

We can only hope the DOT will listen to the people in Jackson County. They don’t want the standard solution to traffic woes, which is simply a big road or lots of turning lanes. That is unacceptable.

The transportation task force, formed three years ago at DOT’s behest, needs to have a big say in what happens. The southern loop can’t the decision of a couple of DOT employees and an influential Jackson County DOT board member. It needs more input, especially in the planning stages.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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