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Wednesday, 10 July 2013 13:27

DOT decision could finally lay the Southern Loop to rest

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op frI’m not sure it represents a new philosophy or perhaps is just an acknowledgement of reality, but the decision by the state Department of Transportation to hold off on any further planning for the massive Southern Loop project in Jackson County was certainly welcome news.

It was September 2001 when the controversy over this proposed bypass erupted in Jackson County and made its first appearance in the pages of The Smoky Mountain News. Malcom MacNeil, the former owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, was circulating a petition from the very outset that garnered more than 500 signatures to get the state to back off the project.

 

Now, 12 years later, those early efforts have paid off.

The state announced last week it would first work on redesigning the traffic-clogged N.C. 107 to try and alleviate problems on the road. For those who don’t live in Jackson County, N.C. 107 is the well-traveled highway that runs from downtown Sylva out to Western Carolina University and on up the mountain to Cashiers. 

“People spoke loudly and clearly they wanted to have N.C. 107 improvements done first, and then if it doesn’t solve all the problems, you come back and do the N.C. 107 connector,” said Zahid Baloch, a DOT project engineer based in Raleigh. “We felt like it was the best idea to go with the wishes of the people and what they want. So that is the whole thing we are trying to do.”

There is more than a little irony in this about face by the DOT. For more than a decade, the DOT fought against the wishes of county, municipal and community leaders — along with thousands of citizens — who lined up against the bypass. All along the way, the DOT told those who supported a different approach to the N.C. 107 problems — rather than a new road at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars — that they were at best naïve and at worst just plain ignorant about transportation.

In a quote pulled from that first 2001 story in SMN, this is how the DOT’s Transportation Improvement Plan described the route: “The Sylva/Dillsboro Southern Loop (FS-0114C),” would extend from U.S. 441 south of Dillsboro to N.C. 107, probably between Walmart and the Western Carolina University campus. From there it would continue on to the U.S. 19/23/74 bypass.”

The idea, of course, was to siphon traffic off of one of the busiest and most congested roads in the region. Again, from our first story in 2001, here’s Jackson County resident and former state Transportation Board member Conrad Burrell: “This has been kicked around by DOT since 1985. Nothing has ever been done about it, and the traffic on N.C. 107 is getting beyond unbearable.”

In 2003, Ron Watson was the division chief for the DOT in our region. I liked Ron but think he was wrong about this project. Here’s what he had to say a decade ago: “I know for a fact that nothing we’re going to be doing to 107 is going to solve this problem,” he said.

As time went on, the Southern Loop debate spilled over and became an issue in town and county elections. That initial grassroots effort against the road developed into an organized, knowledgeable Smart Roads Coalition that educated the community and themselves about smart growth. To the DOT’s credit, it funded a Jackson County Transportation Task Force that spent many hours looking at alternatives. All these efforts eventually made the road opponents formidable adversaries to the state DOT and anyone else who thought a massive new road project was a good idea. 

From the very outset no one debated that N.C. 107 has serious problems and needs to be redesigned. That is a given. But many — and I count myself among them — believe the new road will cause more problems than it will solve. The destruction of a swath of Jackson County’s rural landscape is certainly not something many people see as a positive. Downtown Sylva and many of the businesses along the N.C. 107 corridor would also lose business if a bypass kept traffic away.

Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that new highways that promote strip commercial and residential growth have been proven to be detrimental to small communities. It is the 1950s and 1960s model that most who live in WNC want nothing to do with.

Instead, let’s make Sylva and Cullowhee a model for the best ways to re-develop a congested highway. Close off some entryways to the road and expand others. Build a few connecting roads back behind the buildings. Make sure bike lanes and sidewalks encourage other kinds of use in addition to automobiles. Use traffic calming medians and other devices to slow automobiles in certain places.

The residents of Jackson County who argued for the N.C. 107 redesign for the last 12 years may be exhausted from the fight. The work, however, has just begun.

(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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