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Wednesday, 08 March 2017 18:25

Over and out: a Southern Loop retrospective

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With a redesign of N.C. 107 officially in the works, the controversial Southern Loop appears to be toast.

“It is not a project that anyone in DOT is working on nor is it a project anyone expects to be working in in the next 10 years,” said Brian Burch, DOT project development engineer in Sylva.

The Southern Loop has been struck from the long-range road building to-do list, and would face a long and rigorously vetted process to get back on the list again.

For two decades, a battle brewed over whether to build a cross-country bypass skirting 107 to siphon traffic off the congested five-lane. It often seemed like an uphill battle to convince DOT to simply retrofit N.C. 107 instead. But Jeanette Evans, a long-time voice with the Smart Roads Alliance, said she was always hopeful a redesign of 107 would prevail.

“I guess I felt like the odds were even. I felt like it could go wither way. There were a lot of people that came out,” Evans said. “I felt like traffic wasn’t so bad that a lot of smaller solutions would fix the problem. Also, it was just the money. It would be hard to justify spending that kind of money.”

The new road around 107 would have cost upward of $150 million, five times more than a 107 redesign.

Joel Setzer, the public face of the Southern Loop during the long-running controversy, is now retired from the DOT. But he spent years thinking about 107 during his daily commute from Cullowhee to the regional DOT office in Sylva. 

“My last conclusion on the whole traffic 107 problem was that both things would be needed long-term, and I still see it that way,” Setzer said. 

Setzer said the idea for the Southern Loop dates back to the early 1990s, when it emerged in a long-range transportation plan endorsed by local government officials.

“When N.C. DOT began to execute that long-range plan that everybody had agreed to, that’s when citizens began to say ‘This is going to be a big change for Jackson County. Are we truly ready for it?’” Setzer recalled.

But turning the DOT in those days was like turning an aircraft carrier. It took years of studies and counter studies, competing traffic models and dualing experts to slow the Southern Loop train down. 

While the DOT was a lightening rod at times, Setzer saw the debate over 107 as a philosophical give-and-take between government and citizens, a model of democracy that he embraced and never shied away from.

“The DOT that I worked for, and the DOT that I understand is out there today, works for the citizenry.

“Whether they feel like they are fighting or just expressing, you listen,” Setzer said. “In the end, if there is divisiveness in a community over a project — and this happens all the time, every day in government — then government has to try to make a decision that’s in the best interest of a majority.”

Finally, in the late 2000s, DOT gave credence to the idea of redesigning 107. But instead of dropping the Southern Loop, Setzer decided to do both.

It was now a horse race to see which could be done first. 

Jack Debnam, a former county commissioner, was integral to turning the tide. The year he was elected in 2008, DOT had just rolled out a new, more objective process for ranking road projects.

In the old days, DOT officials had wide discretion over what roads got built. And the Southern Loop had an inside track thanks to Conrad Burrell, a Jackson resident and Southern Loop fan who served on the state DOT board.

But the new process for ranking road projects was based on a scoring rubric that quantified the rationale for a project — and that also gave bona fide weight to local input.

Debnam convinced fellow commissioners to go big or go home. They plunked their entire point bank into the 107 redesign and gave the Southern Loop a big fat zero.

“Let’s put our points where they can do some good,” Debnam recalled of his strategy.

When the points were tallied, even though DOT officials had ranked the Southern Loop higher, the points assigned by Jackson commissioners tipped the scales. The 107 redesign edged out the Southern Loop by one point, winning it a spot on the DOT’s road list. The rest is history.

Debnam is pleased the redesign of 107 will get its day in the sun.

“I think this project will help heal some wounds in this community,” Debnam said.

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