Plows miss part of I-40

Motorists beware: a no man’s land at exit 37 on Interstate 40 may not be plowed and salted in bad weather with the same regularity as the rest of the highway.

The stretch in question lies near the Haywood-Buncombe county line, where a few hundred yards of the Interstate are occasionally overlooked. Plows and salt trucks coming from opposite directions — one crew from Haywood and another from Buncombe — use exit 37 as a natural turn-around point before heading back the other way.

“Essentially the county line is within a few hundred feet,” said Ed Green, the Department of Transportation maintenance engineer for Division 13, a seven-county area that includes Buncombe.

But there is a short stretch of Interstate between the exit ramp and the on ramp — including a bridge over the road below — that gets missed.

“Who does the bridge?” Green said in response. “I am not sure about who does that. At some point, some of them overlap, but they may not do it every time depending on how bad conditions are.”

One crew or the other has to overshoot exit 37 to avoid leaving a gap. Since the bridge has no shoulders, going past the exit in order to hit the bridge and then backing up isn’t an option.

“That’s too dangerous,” said Ben Williams, DOT maintenance supervisor in Haywood County. “The only way to do it is run past it.”

But when Haywood’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they have to continue for several miles to the truck weigh station before they can turn around. If Buncombe’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they can’t turn around until exit 33.

And that’s exactly what they do — most of the time that is, according to Chad Bandy, DOT maintenance supervisor in Buncombe County.

“A lot of times what we’ll do is go into Haywood County some, and they come into Buncombe County some,” said Bandy.

But occasionally, it gets skipped.

The territory around exit 37 lies on Buncombe’s side of the county line and is technically Buncombe’s responsibility — not Haywood’s. Plow and salt truck drivers coming from Buncombe decide whether to turn around at exit 37 or keep going to exit 33 “as conditions warrant,” Bandy said.

One Tuesday morning in early February there were two wrecks due to ice on the exit 37 bridge — one on each side of the Interstate, according to accident reports by the N.C. Highway Patrol.

That morning, Buncombe crews plowing and salting the road passed over the bridge only every other trip, Bandy said. The other trips, they turned around at exit 37 and didn’t proceed over the bridge all the way to the county line.

Mary Clayton, who commutes daily to Haywood Regional Medical Center from Buncombe County, said ice on the bridge threw her for a loop that morning.

“I didn’t even realize the weather was bad or the roads were bad. Then I hit the bridge and as soon as I hit the ice, well, I lost it,” Clayton said.

In all fairness, there were other weather-related wrecks on I-40 near exit 37 that morning as well, but not on the section that lies in no man’s land.

“There was one, two, three, four, five, six wrecks near the 37,” said Jennifer Hodge, an office assistant for the North Carolina Highway Patrol in Buncombe County.

Four of those six wrecks were due to icy roads, according to the accident reports. Two were on the bridge, which lies inside the no man’s land, while two were just east of it — indicating that the road was icy in other areas too, and that less-than-diligent plowing of the bridge isn’t necessarily to blame.

I-40 is a priority for Buncombe plow and salt trucks. Two drivers are assigned to the Interstate and make continual passes the duration of a snowstorm.

But there’s no log that shows how often Buncombe’s trucks turn around at exit 37, skipping the bridge in the process, versus continuing on to exit 33.

“We don’t keep a record of every trip the truck makes,” Bandy said.


Highway Patrol lodges concerns

Inconsistent plowing at exit 37 hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Between Haywood and Buncombe is kind of a no-man’s land,” N.C. Highway Patrol Sergeant Henley said. “Buncombe handles one side and Haywood handles the other.”

Motorists who commute regularly have noticed in the past that the stretch between the exit ramp and on ramp can be snowier than the rest of the interstate.

It was such a problem last winter that the Highway Patrol held a meeting with Buncombe County DOT maintenance workers this fall to discuss it before another winter hit.

“It was addressed with them and they assured us it would be taken care of,” Henley said.

Bandy said he remembered the meeting, but not that particular topic.

“I mean, yeah, we talked about, you know, a lot of things with snow and ice,” Bandy said.

But he didn’t remember concerns about exit 37 specifically.

“Not that I recall, but there may have,” Bandy said. “I don’t remember that particular one, but it may have come up.”

Henley recalls it clearly, however. He said the Buncombe DOT workers assured troopers that they had a protocol for dealing with exit 37.

However, that protocol remains difficult to ferret out.

Green, who initially said “I am not sure who is doing what out there” pledged to look into it. A few days later, after talking to Bandy, he reported back.

“I talked to our folks and found out they are treating it. They go all the way to 33. Not every time but most of the time,” Green said. “They assured me it was being taken care of.”

When asked whether the Buncombe and Haywood maintenance units call each other ahead of time to coordinate who will do the bridge, the answer was “no.”

“We don’t,” Bandy said. But, “during the event as conditions warrant, we do talk to each other,” he added.

Ben Williams, the maintenance supervisor in Haywood County, confirmed that the two units don’t call each other to coordinate ahead of time.

“Sometimes it depends on who gets there first. If it is there and it needs pushing we’ll do it,” Williams said. “We are very fluid.”

Bandy and Green said it makes more sense to let the plow drivers make that decision on the ground, since it depends on timing of who arrives there first and how bad the road is.

“They are not really going to know until they get there,” said Green.

However, that’s not the impression Henley was given at the meeting last fall when troopers asked about a protocol for making sure the stretch wasn’t forgotten.

“They kind of assured us they had one,” Henley said.

Henley said it would be preferable for crews to decide prior to a storm who would do it.

Bandy and Williams, the maintenance supervisors in Buncombe and Haywood respectively, both referred to each other as friends, and even talked to each other in between interviews for this article. As friends, it may be one reason they don’t feel an official protocol is necessary.

“Ben and his counterpart in Buncombe are good friends, and I am sure they have it worked out,” said Mark Gibbs, the maintenance engineer for DOT’s Division 14, a 10-county area that includes Haywood County.

It could also explain why Williams would send Haywood County trucks into Buncombe County simply to be a good neighbor, despite struggling with not enough money for snow removal in his own county.

Gibbs said he has never asked Williams how the stretch at exit 37 is handled. He travels the section of I-40 every morning on his commute to Sylva. This is the first winter he has been making the commute, but has never noticed a problem.

“Every time I have been through there, there has been very little transition between the two lines,” Williams said. “The coordination of both counties, even though it is across Division lines, seems to work fairly well.”

Jackson County commissioners have been asked to select their Top Six road priorities to pass along to the state Department of Transportation — a decision that could help decide whether a controversial, five-mile bypass around Sylva is ever built.

The commissioners’ input will help shape an even bigger to-do list: a Top 25 for the entire 10-county region of DOT’s Division 14. The projects on that list, in turn, eventually must vie for funding statewide.

The list compiled by the county’s board of commissioners is likely to figure heavily in whether the bypass (once dubbed the Southern Loop, now called a “connector” by the transportation department) moves forward. The bypass would be a new major highway bisecting Jackson County, with the intention of diverting traffic from N.C. 107.

Jackson County’s planning board recently compiled their Top Six projects. That recommendation was done to help guide commissioners in making their own selection.

All that sounds very tentative and preliminary. But, in fact, a 10-year work program compiled last year by the transportation department shows right-of-way acquisition on the bypass is scheduled for fiscal year 2016; construction would start in fiscal year 2018. The existence of actual startup dates for the project (if approved) are likely to underscore opponents’ beliefs that the transportation department has “fast-tracked” the new highway over widespread public wishes to the contrary.

Funding already has been secured, too, for an environmental study of the proposed bypass’ path, Julia Merchant, transportation department spokeswoman, confirmed last week.

“(But) the environmental planning has been placed on hold as the department waits to see the outcomes of the feasibility study to improve N.C. 107 and receive the county’s list of transportation priorities to determine how the county would like to move forward,” Merchant wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News.

Commissioners are expected to work on the list for the next couple of months. The regional ranking must be completed by summer, said Ryan Sherby, who oversees transportation for the state agency Southwestern Development Commission.

“The county commissioners represent the citizens of this county,” said Susan Leveille, a member of the Smart Roads Alliance, an activist group in Jackson County. “It matters a lot that they make decisions based on what the citizens want and what is in the best interest of the citizens in the future.”

Leveille questioned the potential cost of a bypass.

“It is our hope that (commissioners) will put other DOT projects ahead of this bypass that the citizen and experts say will not cure the ills on N.C. 107, and will cost so much in money and natural resources,” Leveille said.


Jackson County planning board Top Six highway recommendations:

• Redesign N.C. 107 in Sylva to improve traffic flow

• Add a west bound on-ramp at exit 85 on U.S. 74

• Improve Cashiers crossroads intersection, possibly with a roundabout

• Redesign U.S. 23 business from town to the hospital

• Install new interchange at U.S. 441 and N.C. 116

• Build N.C. 107 connector (Southern Loop), specifically on the existing Cane Creek/Blanton Branch corridor

Source: Southwestern Development Commission

Jackson County commissioners have been asked to select their top six road priorities for consideration by the state Department of Transportation, a decision that could help decide whether a controversial bypass around Sylva is ever built.

Division 14, a 10-county region of the transportation department, plans to use the information to help it decide which projects should be included a bigger to-do list: A top 25 for the entire division. These projects, in turn, eventually must vie for funding statewide.

The list compiled by the county’s board of commissioner is likely to figure heavily in whether the Southern Loop moves forward. The Southern Loop would be a new major highway that would bisect Jackson County, with the intention of diverting traffic from N.C. 107.

Opponents to the Southern Loop have questioned the need and scope of the project, and whether the transportation department has “fast-tracked” the new highway over public wishes to the contrary.

Funding already has been secured for an environmental study, Julia Merchant, transportation department spokeswoman, confirmed today (Friday).

“(But) the environmental planning has been placed on hold as the department waits to see the outcomes of the feasibility study to improve N.C. 107 and receive the county's list of transportation priorities to determine how the county would like to move forward,” Merchant wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News.

Asked how important commissioners’ decision would figure, she replied:

“In terms of the state DOT’s ranking system, the priorities set by a county or region certainly send a message and may give a project more points. However, each project is weighed and ranked on the value it would add to the transportation system, and the priorities set locally and regionally are just one factor in that decision process. Basically, there’s no rule saying the state will automatically pick up a region’s top priorities. That said, local and regional input is still very important to the state’s prioritization process, and that’s why we have numerous channels for gathering such input.

“Conversely, a project could theoretically end up on our Work Program even if a local or regional authority does not include a project on its list of priorities. However, it would be very unusual that a project would meet criteria to qualify as a priority on DOT’s list if it wasn’t also supported locally and regionally.”

For more on this issue, read next Wednesday’s print and online edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

The second and final public hearing on whether the N.C. Department of Transportation should widen and pave Needmore Road took place in Macon County last week.

Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane, 3.3-mile gravel road along the Little Tennessee River in Macon and Swain counties. It parallels N.C. 28, but on the opposite bank. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Energy.

Twenty-seven people spoke at the recent hearing. Additionally, the entire five-member Macon County Board of Commissioners turned out to listen, along with transportation department officials. These comments come on top of nearly 800 signatures on a petition supporting some type of paving or resurfacing, and at least 66 written comments sent in to the department of transportation earlier. Plus, about 25 people spoke publicly at a previous public hearing last fall.

In a follow-up discussion, DOT spokesperson Julia Merchant told The Smoky Mountain News a post-hearing meeting would be held in about six weeks “to discuss each and every comment that has come in on the Needmore project. Then, we’ll make a decision as to whether future studies will be conducted.”

Merchant said no percentage weight is assigned directly to public support or opposition.

“So I guess you could say it’s more intuitive,” she said. “Public comments certainly weigh in the decision making, but we have to balance them against engineering criteria. We also have to weigh other engineering criteria such as cost, traffic surveys and impacts to the human environment in order to come up with the best solutions.”

The Department of Transportation isn’t sure how long it will take to investigate anonymous allegations of fraud among road maintenance contractors and DOT employees in Haywood County, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

A second anonymous letter was distributed last week alleging favoritism by DOT’s maintenance supervisors in awarding contracts for roadwork in Haywood and Jackson counties, prompting DOT officials in Raleigh to ratchet up the caliber of their internal investigation.

Routine maintenance such as cutting brush from roadsides, hauling gravel, cleaning-out ditches and even building secondary roads is not done in house by DOT maintenance crews, but instead is done by private contractors.

The letter alleges that one private contractor who pulls down the lion’s share of the work overbills the DOT, while the DOT maintenance division looks the other way. The letter details several examples of jobs where DOT maintenance supervisors were complicit in overpaying the contractor.

After receiving the first anonymous letter, Joel Setzer, the head of the 10-county division of the DOT that includes Haywood and Jackson, initially assigned someone in his own office to conduct the internal investigation. However, DOT officials in Raleigh have turned it over to the office of inspector general, an autonomous arm of the DOT that handles internal investigations.

“We take every report of any kind that we get very seriously, whether they come from employees internally or people outside DOT,” said Greer Beaty, director of communications for DOT in Raleigh.

The DOT’s office of inspector general is a recent creation under the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue, who has pushed for openness and accountability of state government. It has eight fulltime investigators — seemingly a large staff to do nothing but look into allegations of wrong-doing within a single state agency, but DOT is a massive operation.

DOT has between 12,000 and 14,000 employees, a budget of $4 billion and hundreds of contracts it oversees.

Many allegations don’t pan out. But in the process, the office of inspector general will make recommendations on new ways of doing business, Beaty said.

“There are going to be instances where we can do things better,” Beaty said. “The investigation will point out where we might strengthen a policy or procedure.”

That might indeed be the case with this investigation, where the way in which DOT maintenance divisions award work to contractors will undoubtedly be examined.

“It will be a good time for us to look and say ‘This policy is appropriate,’ or ‘Gosh, we could make this policy stronger by doing this,’” Beaty said.

Investigators are handicapped when looking into anonymous claims, Beaty said.

“There is no way to ask questions or get supporting documentation. We have to start from ground zero and turn over every rock,” Beaty said.

While the letter names DOT maintenance employees and specific contractors, The Smoky Mountain News will not print those names unless the allegations are substantiated.

A spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation said they didn’t intentionally leave out the state’s westernmost counties on an official logo created by consultants paid $434,590.46 by taxpayers.

That amount, in the interest of accuracy, was a lump sum for work done on the Complete Streets project, not just for creating a logo that — despite transportation officials’ assurances to the contrary — fails to include the state’s westernmost counties.

The transportation department adopted a “Complete Streets” policy in July 2009. The policy directs the department to consider and incorporate several modes of transportation when building new projects or making improvements to existing infrastructure.

The transportation department contracted with consultant P.B. Americas — interestingly, the company is headquartered in New York, so how could they be expected to know about counties west of Buncombe? — to lead and assist the Complete Streets project.

“While I can see what you mean about the Complete Streets logo appearing to lop off the far western counties, I can assure you that’s not the intent,” said Julia Merchant, a transportation department spokeswoman.

Merchant, it should in fairness be made clear, is perfectly familiar with the western part of the great state she now serves. Before taking the job in Raleigh, Merchant worked for this newspaper as a reporter and is a graduate of Appalachian State University.                                                                                      

“The logo is simply a sketch/rough outline of the state, and not a to-scale map,” she said. “So while the sketch may seem to exclude the far western counties, I can tell you they were very much included (as was the rest of the state) when it came to developing the Complete Streets guidelines.”                                  

Don Kostelec, senior transportation planner who works for an Asheville consulting firm, wasn’t amused when he saw the pricey logo adorning the new initiative.

“Yeah, it’s probably a little petty,” Kostelec said. “(But the logo) has chopped off the westernmost counties of the state while the coast and Outer Banks still maintain all of their detail. As a native of Macon County, this infuriates me. And they wonder why there is a healthy distrust of Raleigh in the mountains?”

Kostelec suggested the newspaper use the following headline if it pursued a news story: “Complete Streets … Incomplete State.”

An anonymous letter alleging corruption — including bribery, embezzlement, overbilling and theft of state materials — among contractors hired to do roadside maintenance for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Haywood County has been widely circulated in recent weeks.

County commissioners, law enforcement, state politicians, media outlets and the DOT itself received copies. While the letter isn’t signed, the allegations are detailed and specific — specific enough that it has prompted the DOT to conduct an internal investigation.

“They are some serious accusations that have been made,” said Joel Sezter, head of the DOT for a 10-county area that includes Haywood.

When Setzer got a copy of the letter in late December, he assigned a staff person from his own office to start an internal investigation. But Setzer’s boss has since taken charge of the inquiry, and it is now being orchestrated out of the Raleigh office.

Terry Gibson, the State Highway Administrator in Raleigh, has pledged to get to the bottom of the accusations.

“The allegations do concern us very much. We will not stop until we are sure things are running like they ought to out there,” Gibson said. “We don’t want to hurt anyone that is innocent, but if someone is doing something that is not right we want to deal with it.”

Gibson said he assigned his Chief Engineer John Nance, essentially the second in command over the DOT, to spearhead the investigation. But he has also brought in the Inspector General for the highway department, which acts as an autonomous review body.

“We asked them to make sure it is an independent look,” Gibson said.

Setzer would not speculate on who wrote the letter. But whoever it was has a working knowledge of DOT maintenance operations. The letter mentions the names of several DOT employees and contractors, as well as specific contracts and purchases.

Gibson said chasing down claims in anonymous letters can sometimes be difficult since there is no original source to interview.

But, “This one is so specific that it should help us try to determine the validity,” Gibson said.

How aggressive DOT will be with its internal investigation remains to be seen. However, ignoring the letter — particularly since it was so widely disseminated — would have been difficult.

The letter was sent to all five Haywood County commissioners, who in turn passed it to District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.

“We don’t have the authority to do a criminal investigation as a county board. That’s a law enforcement issue. If they deem it necessary for a law enforcement investigation, that is their decision,” County Manager Marty Stamey said.

Bonfoey, in turn, passed the letter on to Sherriff Bobby Suttles.

“I sent it along to the sheriff for him to act appropriately,” Bonfoey said.

Bonfoey declined to comment on why he sent it to the sheriff rather than the SBI, which would be better equipped to handle an investigation into possible public corruption.

Sheriff Suttles said an investigation of a state agency like the DOT would have to be done at the state level, presumably the SBI, and not his office.

“I don’t see an investigation from the sheriff’s office on it at this time,” Suttles said.

Beside, since the letter was anonymous, there is no clear starting place, Suttles said.

“It doesn’t give you too much to go on,” Suttles said.

Setzer said he won’t hesitate to call for a criminal investigation by the SBI if his agency finds the allegations have any merit.

“If any laws were broken then I will be making a reference to the SBI, but I don’t if they have been yet or not,” Setzer said. “Right now it is hard to know what is accurate and what is inaccurate in that letter, and I don’t want to speculate.”

People for and against the state Department of Transportation’s plans to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of Needmore Road have another opportunity to tell officials what they think this month.

At the request of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, the transportation department will hold a second public hearing Jan. 25 in Macon County. The state agency fulfilled public law by holding one last fall in Swain County — the road connects Macon and Swain — but Macon leaders wanted to ensure their residents had a say, too.

You do not have to live in Macon County to participate in the public hearing.

“Both counties are involved in this matter, and given geography, there is no convenient location for a meeting to serve both counties. In my opinion, Bryson City was chosen because DOT perceived a better chance of turning people out who would be favorable to their agenda,” Bill McLarney, an expert on the Little Tennessee River (which parallels Needmore Road) and biomonitoring director for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, wrote in an email.

“… I think it is particularly important to reinforce the will of the Macon County Commission by reminding them that their predecessors (and their Swain County counterparts) voted unanimously to support the Needmore acquisition, and that this is something of which we should all be very proud,” McLarney wrote.  

Needmore Road cuts through the Needmore Game Lands, located in Macon and Swain counties. The 4,400-acre tract was protected after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it from development after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

What’s being decided is whether to pave and widen this gravel section of Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

Most of the major environmental groups in the region have given the nod to paving, citing protections to the Little Tennessee River, which is the beneficiary of dust and sedimentation. The groups have stopped short of endorsing the road widening as proposed, however. That would involve cutting into and removing acidic rock, which carries an inherent danger to the environment.


Want to go

When: Pre-hearing from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; open house starts at 7 p.m.

Where: Iotla Valley Elementary/Cowee School, 51 Cowee School Drive, Franklin.

Town of Sylva leaders have sent a letter to the state Department of Transportation endorsing what supporters would like called a connector — and detractors a bypass — around N.C. 107.

The letter was approved by unanimous vote last week.

“We envision (N.C. 107) to be more of a ‘city street’ rather than a major thoroughfare,” Stacy Knotts, a Sylva town commissioner, wrote in explanation of the vote (an ice storm prevented The Smoky Mountain News from attending this particular meeting). “We are hoping to improve safety and traffic congestion without widening the road — as this would impact many businesses.”

Supporters agree a connector would ease traffic on N.C. 107; detractors say a bypass would do nothing of the sort.

Potential redesigns of N.C. 107 were recently unveiled at a public information session in Sylva that drew a crowd of 200. The state highway is Sylva’s major traffic corridor, taking in the primary portion of the county experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.

The transportation department discussed six concepts. Three would include building what was once dubbed the Southern Loop, since renamed the “N.C. 107 connector” by the transportation department … or, in the parlance of Smart Roads, a community activist group in Jackson County opposing the plans, “The Bypass.”

By whatever name, the connector/bypass/Southern Loop would cut a major five-mile-long road through people’s homes, over farmland and streams and forests.

Susan Leveille, a member of Smart Roads, said when the county put together its comprehensive transportation plan, “the N.C. DOT says, ‘the problem on 107 is not traffic volume, the problem is land use.’ As in, how the land along the 107 corridor is allowed to be used by the town and county.”

The answer, Leveille said, is not a connector. Nor massive “improvements” to N.C. 107 to fix debatable traffic issues along the highway. The issue, in her book, is the need for town leaders to “make some hard choices instead of doing what is easy” and pass some development regulations.

Leveille suggested reducing curb cuts — a break in a curb allowing access from the roadway — and perhaps moving toward what Waynesville has done on Russ Avenue: forcing newly built businesses to front the roadway and put parking behind buildings.

“These are not the only two choices,” Leveille said of the either/or “improve N.C. 107” or build a connector/bypass/Southern Loop.

“Sylva should be fighting this tooth and nail,” longtime Jackson County business owner Leveille said. “This could bypass the entire economic center of Sylva.”

In other N.C. 107 matters, former N.C. Department of Transportation employee Jamie Wilson spoke to Jackson County commissioners this week about how the 14th Division does business in this region. He said department leaders have not been open about traffic counts on N.C. 107. Wilson claimed the number of vehicles using the road is actually showing decreases.

Wilson also questioned funding decisions and how road projects are prioritized in the 10-county 14th Division.


Sylva to transportation department:

In response to the N.C. 107 Improvements Feasibility Study presented at the Nov. 9th Citizen’s Information Workshop, the Sylva Board of Commissioners submit the following comments.

The terrain in Jackson County is mountains, ridges, narrow valleys and streams. This terrain is extremely important in the development of Sylva and Jackson County. N.C. 107 in Sylva runs through a narrow valley between two ridges. Between Sylva and Cullowhee the highway is either sandwiched between ridges, or between a ridge and the river. With this in mind, we would like for N.C. 107 to remain a four (4) lane city street with little or no increase in width.  Increasing N.C. 107 to six (6) or seven (7) lanes would have a negative impact to business and the growth of Sylva. We have faith in N.C. DOT’s ability to forecast traffic and determine future needs or highway requirements. Therefore, if the current or improved four-lane highway will not carry the forecasted traffic, we would endorse the connector concept, in conjunction with the improvements to N.C. 107.

We would also recommend that N.C. DOT consider increasing the width of the bridge across Scotts Creek at Jackson Paper to four lanes.

Your consideration for our concerns and for the growth of Sylva is greatly appreciated.

Recognizing that Cherokee has roads, too, a transportation-planning group for the state’s six westernmost counties opted to give the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians a voice in decisions being made about highways and byways.

The decision to include the tribe wasn’t unanimous. Robbinsville Alderman Jacky Ayers voted “no,” without elaborating why.

The tribe has lands in Swain, Jackson, Graham and Cherokee counties. The group — the Transportation Advisory Committee, made up of elected officials from those counties, plus Macon and Clay — met this week.

Ryan Sherby, who heads the group on behalf of the Southwestern Development Commission, a behind-the-scenes but vitally important state planning organization, initiated the addition of Cherokee.

Joel Setzer, a division engineer overseeing the state’s 10 westernmost counties for the state Department of Transportation, endorsed the proposal. He pointed out the tribe would, subsequently, be treated like municipalities. It will have a voice and a vote, but specific road-project recommendations must be tendered to the particular counties where the roads are located before being included for DOT review.

Ayers, while inarticulate on why he wanted to exclude the tribe, found his voice in a sudden burst of praise following the vote, characterizing Conrad Burrell as the “best board member in the state.” Burrell represents this region on the state board of transportation.

Burrell responded, after other meeting-goers had burbled their agreement, that he wanted the elected officials to note during his decade-long tenure: “we didn’t keep all the money in a single county. We try to equal it out, not just give it to one or two counties.”

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