A planned new access road that will provide an exit and entrance into Southwestern Community College in Webster should not be a controversial project. The college’s growth, the entire country’s renewed emphasis on public safety in the post-9/11 era, and SCC’s unusual layout running up the side of a hill all point to the need for the project.
But this project has become a hotly debated topic among many in Jackson County now that the chairman of the board of commissioners is criticizing the preference given to the road despite what he says are other important needs in the county.
“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said at a board meeting last week. And, even more pointed, “I told (Department of Transportation officials) this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
What’s important here is that those critical of the road be sure to separate what are two different issues: SCC’s need for the road versus how this road was OK’d over other projects.
About 11,000 vehicles a day travel past SCC on N.C. 116, right past the school’s entrance. The college has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, jumping from 2,372 full-time students in 2000 to 3,668 full-timers in 2010. That’s a 54-percent growth in enrollment over the past decade, and yet traffic in and out of the school must use the same roads.
The safety issue is one that has gained priority over the last decade. As we pointed out in an article in last week’s newspaper, both Tuscola and Smoky Mountain high schools have had second entrance/exit roads built in recent years to make sure there was more than one way in and out of the campuses. County Commissioner Joe Cowan, in response to Debnam’s criticism, was adamant that public safety is a very important aspect of this project.
Finally, in this economy it pays to feed your biggest existing industry. In Jackson County, that industry is education. Between the two colleges, there is no larger employer in the county and no other entities that attract more people. It’s good for Jackson County when the state invests money in Western Carolina University and SCC.
But it’s easy to understand why the issues raised by Debnam are getting traction.
In Jackson County, the Southern Loop controversy has led to a substantial level of mistrust about just about all Department of Transportation projects. There’s also a new, combustible mix on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — two new GOP members and one Independent, along with two incumbent Democrats.
Conrad Burrell, who is the regional representative on the state Board of Transportation, is also a long-time member of the SCC Board of Trustees. The fact that he openly supported this road, and that some speculate it could provide a ramp that would aid the proposed Southern Loop — which Burrell also supports and many others in Jackson County don’t — has opened the door for criticism of the SCC project. Debnam thinks Burrell’s support of SCC has pushed this project ahead of others.
Some also think that DOT officials and Burrell are laying the groundwork for the Southern Loop, and that this road getting pushed ahead of others is part of that plan. Let’s hope not. Grouping these two projects could put SCC in the crosshairs of a controversy it in which it doesn’t need to be involved.
Road building decisions are as byzantine as any process in government. It’s never a bad idea to closely examine decisions by state bureaucrats about expenditures, especially when it comes to roads. The DOT has proven itself over the years to be an insular agency that too often makes decisions contrary to the wishes of the taxpayers who are paying its bills. Because of that, the public — and leaders like Debnam — has every right to scrutinize the projects that will affect their communities. Sure, the influence of someone as powerful as Burrell will definitely play a part in which roads are built — that’s his job as a DOT board member.
In this case, though, SCC shouldn’t be punished because of suspicions about the motives of those who support this project. The road is been discussed for more than a decade. Let’s get it done. The other issues will still be there to investigate for as long as anyone wants.
Health and Prosperity
Two of the main arguments in favor of Corridor K construction are safety and economic growth. Road advocates maintain that having an easily traveled corridor into the area will allow larger companies — and their requisite supplies and equipment — to set up shop there. It would also give faster, safer access to health care. Residents must now traverse steep and winding two-lane roads to get to nearby hospitals and doctors’ offices. Ambulances can take up to two hours getting to Asheville’s Mission hospital, since their rescue helicopter can only reach the area in clear weather.
Lives in: Robbinsville – her home is in the road’s path
“I really love where I live, and as much as I love living there, even more than that I want this road built. I know how important it is to receive quick medical care when you need it. We need to have quicker access to health care, which could mean the difference between life and death, so I’m for the road. Is it going to impact me? Yes, it is. But you know what? I’m thinking about my grandchildren and how to make it easier on them in the future.”
The Brain Drain
Many in Graham County are concerned about the brain drain that lack of economic opportunity creates there. Unemployment is high — just above 16 percent in March — and there is no community college within the county. Some road proponents are hopeful that a 4-lane will allow their top young minds to commute to college instead of leaving the county, and that it will entice industry that can provide them jobs after graduation.
Job: Principal at Robbinsville High School
Lives in: Robbinsville
“Our No. 1 export in Graham County is our young people. The young people that we are exporting are the top 10 or 15 percent of our graduating class, every year. Our school is performing miracles with our kids, but they don’t have the ability to come back to Graham County and make a decent living. This road is the first step and this road needs to be built, even if you have to bulldoze my house to start it.”
Deleterious effects on the environment and natural mountainous character are the reasons some opponents list when making their case against the road. The new highway would cut a wide swath through Stecoah, and opponents highlight the changes it would bring to the region’s rugged mountain character. They also point to the road’s potential for environmental damage from leaching from acidic rocks to threats to native species.
Instead, they advocate for improving the existing two-lane road, making it less narrow and curvy, rather than building a brand-new highway.
Job: Chairman of the Tuckasegee Community Alliance, a chapter of the WNC Alliance.
Lives in: Sylva
“The WNC Alliance has long been opposed to the Corridor K proposal because of the effects on rare and endangered species and the Stecoah valley. We believe that growth should be appropriate to the region and should be managed to maintain the world-class natural resources we have here. We want [the North Carolina Department of Transportation] to undertake a more in-depth analysis of upgrading the current right-of-ways.”
Whole Road or No Road
One opposing camp believes the proposed segment of highway would be useless unless the final link of Corridor K — section A, stretching from Robbinsville to Andrews — also gets built. They say a four-lane highway into Robbinsville petering out to a two-lane wouldn’t bring a significant increase in traffic, just a significant expense.
Job: Cherokee County planner
Lives in: Robbinsville
“I think the most important section of this road is the A section. If that’s not completed, I don’t think we’ll have any positive impact from the overall impact of the road. The road will make change and I think that Robbinsville and Graham County need to prepare for that.”
Way too costly
Other challengers to Corridor K cite its high cost — $383 million. $197 million of that would build the tunnel. Corridor K is a part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, and the federally allocated ADHS fund would foot 80 percent of the bill, with a 20 percent match from the state. Detractors say that the $3.46 million per mile is far too much, and that economic benefits won’t offset the costs.
Job: Executive director of WaySouth, a group that promotes sustainable transport in Appalachia
Lives in: Asheville, N.C.
“If we make the generous assumption that North Carolina keeps getting about the same annual amount of federal money for this highway, the earliest it could have enough money to finish this project is in 2028. The bumper stickers that say ‘the money is there, build the road now’ would be more accurate if they said ‘a fifth of the money is there, build the road in 20 years.’ It will take over 75 years for the benefits to equal the cost. That’s a payback period no investor would ever touch, and this road may literally never pay for itself.”
In Graham County, a public hearing last week on Corridor K drew a crowd of 200 people, speaking for and against a new four-lane highway that would end rural isolation but destroy virgin countryside in the process.
The 9.9-mile highway would cost $383 million to complete. As one of the last missing links of Corridor K — known as section B-C by highway officials — it would go from Stecoah to Robbinsville.
The highway through Graham County has been in the planning stages for years but suffered a temporary setback in 2009. The North Carolina Department of Transportation was sent back to the drawing board by the Army Corps, who asked for a better analysis of the proposal and its impact.
At the time, many called for the current two-lane offerings, N.C. 143 and N.C. 28, to be widened and upgraded in lieu of a brand-new, four-lane highway.
But DOT officials have now said that their studies showed that to be impossible without damaging the renowned Appalachian Trail. The existing two-lane highway already crosses the trail, but should that road be widened, it would have a negative impact on the federally protected path.
Last week, the transportation department brought forward a new and improved version. The new plan offers two proposed routes that follow roughly the same path through the Stecoah Valley, with one swinging slightly further north. The DOT is are backing a combination of the two routes as their preferred option.
It includes a lengthy tunnel, just over half a mile long, intended to preserve the integrity of the Appalachian Trail by burrowing under it rather than bisecting it. A 1,063-foot bridge spanning Stecoah Creek is supposed to protect the waterway from degradation.
Some in Graham County are heralding the road as a boon to the region. Others see it as a blight on the landscape and the budget.
What is Corridor K?
The idea for a four-lane highway through the counties west of Asheville — known as Corridor K — had been on the books for decades. It is mostly completed except for a missing link of 17 miles through Graham County, the most remote and rugged stretch.
Corridor K is part of the Appalachian Regional Highway System, extending to Cleveland, Tenn., and devised in the ‘60s to engender economic development in isolated regions of Appalachia.
A new $12 million entrance road for Southwestern Community College got preference over other road projects in the region in recent years, partly thanks to support from the right friends in the right places.
Conrad Burrell, the chairman of the SCC board of trustees, advocated for the road not merely as a representative of the college, but also from inside the N.C. Department of Transportation. For more than a decade, Burrell has simultaneously served on the SCC board and as this region’s representative on the N.C. Board of Transportation, which holds sway over what roads get built.
Burrell holds one of 14 coveted seats on the state DOT board. His position allowed him to steer what road construction in a 10-county area from Haywood west.
Burrell three times voted to give the road funding during state DOT board meetings. The road has received $680,000 since 2007 for planning and design. Construction is slated to start the second half of next year.
Burrell’s support of the project did not legally constitute a conflict of interest, however. Under state law, a conflict of interest exists only when a public official or their immediate family member stands to benefit financially. In this case, Burrell is not paid to serve on the SCC board, nor does he gain financially from the new road.
At every DOT board meeting, board members sign a statement that reads: “I do not have any financial, professional or other economic interests in any of the projects being presented on the Board of Transportation meeting agenda.”
In an ethics training workshop for DOT board members in February, Burrell said he specifically asked about this issue.
“From the legal standpoint there is not a conflict and I am not benefiting from anything,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he began to wonder about it after the SCC board recently named a new building in his honor. The new entrance road will lead past the doorstep of the $8 million building bearing Burrell’s name.
Norma Houston, a public law expert with the UNC School of Government, led the ethics workshop.
“I remember him being very concerned about whether it was a conflict of interest,” Houston said, adding she was impressed that he asked.
“Did he somehow use his position of office as a DOT board member to help secure funding for the new road that would benefit the college?” Houston said. “Under the state ethic act, that is not a violation because there is no personal gain.”
The most he may have gained was his name on a building, which he may have gotten anyway. At a recent groundbreaking for the building, fellow college trustees praised Burrell for his contributions to the college, specifically citing his role in securing a new entrance road for the campus.
Houston said those in public positions still have to be concerned about the appearance of conflict, even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition.
“The question I always pose back is when the law doesn’t clearly say ‘no’ and you are left with the question ‘should you still do it?’” Houston said.
That’s when Houston recommends a little soul searching.
“Would he still have advocated for this project, would it be good for the community and good for the college, even if he didn’t serve on the board? That helps frame the individual’s thoughts on the ethics side of the discussion,” Houston said.
In this case, Burrell says he would. The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus.
“Even if I hadn’t been on the college board, I think this is absolutely a safety issue,” Burrell said.
Jack Debnam, the chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, has questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important compared to other road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials last week to share his concerns and learn more about the new road.
“I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room,” Debnam recounted. “I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
Burrell has served on the DOT board for 10 years. His current term expired in January. He is willing to be reappointed for another term, he said, but the governor has not yet taken action.
DOT board members used to have great leeway in deciding what roads got built in their respective geographic areas. In fact, that was the primary role of the DOT board.
“We relied on them to tell us what was important in the division,” said Van Argabright, the western manager for the transportation planning. “The priorities were in their head, so to speak.”
In 2007, the state moved toward a more formal and objective method of ranking road construction. Projects are now graded on a point system. Local leaders are asked for input, which in turn earns points for a project.
“But back then you didn’t have a way to score,” Argabright said. Thus the power lay almost entirely with the DOT board members.
The SCC interchange landed on the state’s priority list in 2007, just before the new system was implemented. So there was nothing unusual about Burrell, being the region’s DOT board member, asking for a project to be funded even if he had a personal interest in it.
Argabright said the SCC entrance road seems like a valid priority.
“It certainly seems to me trying to help a community college is a pretty good thing,” Argabright said.
The new SCC entrance road isn’t the only project DOT has pursued in recent years that benefits the community college. A new road that leads past SCC’s Macon County campus is currently under construction. The existing road to reach the SCC campus in Macon is a narrow, dead-end, two-lane road. It will be widened and straightened, providing a better caliber road, and extended to tie into U.S. 441 so it is no longer a dead-end, a project carrying a price tag of least $13 million.
Both were on a short list of priority road projects that local DOT leaders tried to protect from state budget cuts.
Joel Setzer, the head of a 10-county DOT division based in Sylva, advocated to keep the SCC road projects on track despite others being delayed in the face of state budget cuts.
In April 2009, after reviewing a revised timetable for road construction, Setzer wrote in an email to a state engineer: “There are 39 projects with the schedules being delayed …. Of the 39, we see seven projects that the original schedule should be maintained.”
The new entrance to SCC’s Jackson campus and the improved road to SCC’s Macon campus were among the seven.
In another email a few days later, Setzer asked road engineers if they could get the roads designed in time should the money materialize as hoped.
“These two projects are being evaluated for schedule due to funding shortages. These are high priorities for Division 14. Division 14 is evaluating options for keeping these projects on schedule and delaying others. I need to know if the funding is made available, can you deliver these projects,” Setzer wrote. “Please let me know as soon as you can. I do not want to trade another project’s schedule for these and then not let them on time.”
Setzer said that the roads were not given preferential treatment per se. Given the funding constraint, the DOT was forced to choose which projects to keep on track and which to delay— but that doesn’t mean the SCC roads moved ahead of others in line.
“There is a difference between accelerating schedules versus maintaining schedules,” Setzer said.
Debnam questioned whether the roads were the best use of limited road building money.
“That’s $30 million of our division’s money that has gone into two glorified driveways,” Debnam said in an interview.
Debnam shared his disdain for what he claimed was preferential treatment for the SCC roads during a county commissioner meeting Monday. He even came prepared with a blown up map of the project.
Before Debnam could get started, Commissioner Joe Cowan stepped in.
“This report is not on the agenda,” Cowan protested. “If we are going to have this we need to have someone from DOT to tell the other side of the story and I object.”
“Well, they can come next time,” Debnam said.
Debnam told the audience at the commissioners meeting that they should all wonder about “the real purpose of this road.”
“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said.
“I don’t think anybody can become an authority on DOT projects after becoming a commissioner for only five months,” Cowan said after Debnam’s presentation.
Ryan Sherby, a liaison to the DOT for the six-county Rural Planning Organization, said the process for road building is complicated. There may well be “more pressing transportation needs” than the new SCC entrance, he said. But some projects are more complicated to design, cost a lot more money or have right-of-way hang-ups.
“This one may not be the best project in Jackson County that could have been pursued, but this is a doable project,” Sherby said.
The motivation behind a $12 million entrance road to Southwestern Community College has been called into question by a Jackson County commissioner.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County commissioners, claims the road catapulted past others to the top of the list.
“We all had other projects pushed back to get this in,” Debnam said.
The road first appeared on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s list of proposed projects in March 2007. A month later, it was allocated $400,000 to begin planning. Construction is scheduled to begin in the second half of next year.
SEE ALSO (PDF download): DOT proposal
That’s not exactly fast-tracked, according to Joel Setzer, head of the Department of Transportation’s Division 14, a 10-county area with its main office in Sylva.
“It has taken a normal pace for a project of the magnitude that it is,” Setzer said. Granted some projects take longer, much longer, but this one was very straightforward in its design, has no environmental issues and little right-of-way to acquire.
The purpose of the new entrance road is to serve SCC’s expanding campus and for safety, according to the DOT. The college buildings are built into a hillside. The entire campus only has one entrance now, and if blocked, students could be trapped during an emergency.
Commissioner Joe Cowan emphasized this point as a counterpoint to Debnam’s questions over the project.
“If we had a real emergency there and that one way got blocked, there is no way to get there with an ambulance or fire truck,” Cowan said.
Both Tuscola High School in Waynesville and Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva were in similar straits. Each had a single road in and out and are also situated on a hillside. Both have had second entrance roads built with DOT funds in recent years.
The new entrance road calls for an overpass above N.C. 107 with on- and off-ramps. The interchange could serve a dual purpose in the future for the Southern Loop, a proposed bypass around the clogged commercial artery of N.C. 107, according to Conrad Burrell, a member of the state DOT board who lives in Sylva. The bypass would need an interchange where it connects with N.C. 107 anyway, likely in the same vicinity, so this one could play that role some day.
“That would be the logical place to put it,” Burrell said, adding they have suggested as much to road planners in Raleigh.
Lydia Aydlett suspects the interchange for the SCC road was designed with the Southern Loop in mind. The same people in the DOT who planned the SCC road are planning for the Southern Loop — namely Burrell and Setzer — so it is only logical they would devise a way for the projects to converge, said Aydlett, a member of Smart Roads Alliance that opposes the Southern Loop.
However, that was in no way the driving force behind the interchange design for the SCC entrance road, according to Setzer.
“That really was not the objective of the interchange. We were not trying to speculate where the 107 connector, if it is ever built, would come in,” Setzer said.
Debnam accused the SCC entrance road of ballooning from a simple intersection as first proposed to a much larger and costlier interchange sporting an overpass with ramps. The interchange design was chosen in lieu of a standard intersection because it is cheaper and safer, according to Steve Williams, a road engineer with the DOT office in Sylva.
Since SCC sits on a hillside, the entrance road must climb up from N.C. 107 to reach campus, Williams said. An elevated interchange means less excavation into the hillside when making that climb.
“The cost was cheaper to do a bridge because of the size of the cut,” Williams said.
It is also safer. If traffic backed up at a stoplight, drivers woudn’t know it until cresting the hill.
“You would abruptly be on stopped traffic,” Setzer said. “We were worried that would be a safety issue.”
The overpass design came as a shock last year to Jeanette Evans, a member of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force that was tasked two years ago with crafting a long-range road plan for the county.
Since the SCC road was already in the pipeline, it was never specifically discussed by the task force. But it appeared on all the DOT maps they used.
“It looked really innocuous,” said Evans.
Evans wasn’t the only one surprised.
“Maybe if the overpass (design) was talked about, it may have raised some opposition on the task force,” said Ryan Sherby, a liaison between local leaders and the six-county Rural Planning Organization.
However, the interchange design was adopted early in the design process. At a public meeting on the project in 2008, the DOT presented three concepts for the new entrance road and solicited public feedback. Two of those three options called for an interchange. At a second public meeting in 2010, the DOT again showed maps and handed out brochures showing interchange-style design options.
According to an attendance roster, at least two members of Smart Roads attended the first public meeting in 2008 where the interchange design was shared.
As a side benefit, the new entrance will relieve congestion at the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 by giving students an alternative way onto campus, according to the DOT.
“I think it will take a quite a bit of traffic off that intersection. That was part of it,” Burrell said.
As of 2009, 11,000 vehicles a day traveled past the college on N.C. 116. Clearly not all of them were coming and going to the college — around 2,500 students take classes at the Sylva campus, but not all students come to campus every day.
How many vehicles would use the new entrance road, and whether it would take much pressure off the existing intersection, is doubtful, Debnam said.
“It is not going to pull that many people out of that intersection,” Debnam said.
Those coming to SCC from the Sylva area won’t be able to use the new entrance road. It would be used only by those coming from the Cullowhee area. Those leaving campus can use the interchange to head in either direction
A proposed compromise by Macon County commissioners on a historic bridge outside of Franklin isn’t sitting well with those who’ve fought for nearly a decade to save it.
Last week, the county board voted unanimously to ask the N.C. Department of Transportation to spare McCoy Bridge, one of the few truss bridges remaining in the state, which straddles the Little Tennessee River in the Oak Grove community. The state wants to replace the one-lane bridge with a new one — which would allow two vehicles to pass and hold more weight — for safety reasons. Residents who view the old bridge as emblematic of the community’s rural character have been locked in a decade-long battle with transportation officials over its fate.
Trying to broker a compromise, Macon commissioners suggested building the new bridge, and transforming the truss bridge into a pedestrian/bike-only bridge. This saves the cost of tearing down, which then could be applied to improvements. Rose Creek resident and Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who could not be reached for comment, crafted the compromise resolution.
“There’s undeniably a need for safe passage there, for ambulances and school buses,” Commission Chairman Brian McClellan said, describing the resolution as “a useful and reasonable compromise that satisfies everybody.”
Well, not exactly: “We’re deeply disappointed,” said Doug Woodward this week, a leading proponent to save McCoy Bridge, explaining most involved in the preservation battle are asking for a safe and historic working bridge. Not two bridges — one for motorists and the other for pedestrians and bike users — but a single, working bridge for everyone.
Woodward said the commissioners’ proposal had been considered, but discarded, as an option early on, with an engineering redesign submitted during a meeting with state transportation officials two years ago.
“That redesign was a workable compromise, would bring McCoy up to modern load-bearing standards, yet retain most of the historical character of the bridge — something many other Eastern states have made a priority,” he said.
Julia Merchant, spokesperson for the transportation department, said the commissioners’ resolution will result in the agency “taking another look to see if the existing McCoy Bridge can remain in place as a light-duty bicycle and pedestrian bridge that may better fit into the community vision for this area.
“The department is also reviewing options for providing a new bridge that meets current standards for cars, trucks and emergency vehicles. This means we are looking at what sorts of additional studies need to be done, what coordination efforts will have to take place and where the funding will come from.”
The review will get under way after May 25, when the deadline closes for comments on the project.
Merchant said the current project schedule called for right-of-way acquisition to begin in 2013, with construction scheduled to start in 2015. Because of the new studies, “that schedule is subject to change,” she said. “It is not known at this time what a revised schedule may look like.”
Woodward said he’s not sure what bridge preservers will, or can, do next — he’s hanging some hope on a letter sent in late April to Gov. Beverly Perdue outlining the community’s desires to save McCoy bridge.
Swain and Macon commissioners believe a state plan to widen and pave a 3.3-mile gravel road along a remote stretch of the Little Tennessee River goes too far.
Leaders of both counties have unanimously called for a scaled down version of the full-blown design suggested by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The DOT plan would widen the narrow road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.
The estimated price tag is $13.1 million, which environmental groups have termed a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. That said, many of those same environmentalists have called for some type of surface treatment because of river-damaging sedimentation from the gravel road. The Little Tennessee River is within spitting distance of the road, and dirt is spewed routinely into the water, damaging the fragile aquatic balance.
The resolutions by Swain and Macon commissioners for a compromise design received rave reviews from those same environmental groups. Julie Sanders of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association offered “many thanks” for the wisdom shown by both boards.
“We appreciate Macon and Swain counties’ leadership on this issue and feel that this is an important move,” she said. “It shows that both boards care about Needmore and that they listened to the community.”
Some residents along Needmore Road, however, believe the scaled down version backed by county commissioners falls short of what’s required to actually make the road safer.
“Needmore will essentially remain an unsafe road,” said Stephen Poole, one of those few people who actually live in the remote area. “Those of us who actually use the road would like to see it paved and made safer. We also would like to see this done with extraordinary care for the environment the road passes through. We not only live in the area, we love it.”
Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said he believed that the two county boards, via the resolutions, walked the line between protecting the area and helping residents have a safer byway to and from their homes. The resolutions (with wording agreed on beforehand by representatives from both counties) noted: “both … agree and support efforts to improve and pave in place … with modifications including river-access areas and guardrails at specific needed locations.”
Additionally, commissioners from Macon and Swain counties called on state officials to include only “minimum lane width” and “minimum shoulder widths.” They pointed out that the primary purpose of the project is to improve the quality of travel for local residents and to reduce sediment to the Little Tennessee River, which McClellan said the counties’ proposals would do.
“We suggested let’s meet in the middle on this one, and try to do something that might be the most feasible for everybody involved,” he said. “For the people there, this would be a much-improved surface without mudholes and potholes, and this would minimize runoff into the river and maintain the rural character of the area.”
Poole said paving is a priority for the people who use the road regularly so that the dust in the summer and the quagmire in the spring are eliminated.
But it is not the only problem residents face with the road, he said. During heavy rains, the road floods in spots, and those areas need to be raised “so that we aren’t stranded until the water recedes and the roadbed repaired.”
Also, the road should be widened where it is too narrow for two vehicles to safely pass, Poole said. During a 2009 traffic count, an average of 320 vehicles a day used the road.
Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the next step is a concurrence meeting. Transportation officials and representatives from other state and federal agencies “will choose the least environmentally damaging, practicable alternative for the project,” Merchant said.
That meeting is tentatively scheduled for July in Raleigh. If the past is any indication of the future, agreement might be hard to come by. State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worried about public reaction, based on a review of road documents by The Smoky Mountain News last fall.
Construction at the level proposed by the transportation department would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed.
The transportation department has maintained that the acidic levels of the rock are low, and that at those levels, runoff would not be considered “hot.” Furthermore, any runoff that did occur could be neutralized.
Merchant said that as part of the decision-making process, officials would take into account the commissioners’ votes as well as public comments received. Two public hearings were held, one in Macon County at the specific request of commissioners there.
McClellan said he’d find the situation very odd if transportation officials chose to ignore a “100 percent agreement” among elected officials in two counties on what should be done to improve Needmore Road.
“With every elected official in the counties involved unanimous on what’s to be done, I wouldn’t quite understand what’s then not to like,” McClellan said.
Needmore is a rough, one-lane road paralleling N.C. 28 between Swain and Macon counties, but on the opposite bank of the Little Tennessee River.
The attention being paid to such a short stretch of gravel might seem outsized except for a couple of important caveats: Needmore Road runs smack through the protected Needmore Game Lands, which were created after 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.
The likelihood of the state Department of Transportation building a bypass around Sylva seems increasingly unlikely after Jackson County commissioners elected this week not to push for the new highway.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 on a list of its top six road-building priorities. Conspicuously absent from that top six was a controversial “connector” from N.C. 107 to U.S. 74, which DOT has pushed as a means of easing traffic congestion in Sylva.
Instead of a building a new road to bypass the commercial artery, commissioners would rather see N.C. 107 redesigned to improve traffic flow — a project four of the five commissioners ranked No. 1.
The connector ranked seventh on commissioners’ collective list, arrived at by adding up individual commissioners’ scores for 16 road projects. Commissioner Joe Cowan, who personally ranked the bypass as his top priority, was the lone “no” vote against the overall list.
SEE ALSO: Where the commissioners stand
For at least a decade, DOT’s bypass concept has faced active and ongoing opposition in Jackson County. Opponents formed an alliance — Smart Roads — to fight the project collectively, and were successful in turning out residents by the hundreds at various meetings on the project. Several of those Smart Roads members were on hand Monday night as commissioners, by virtue of not including the bypass in their top six, in essence voted against a new highway.
“Thank you, thank you — we truly thank you for that,” Pat Vance, a homeowner in the Cane Creek area where the bypass might be built, told commissioners.
Cowan, however, sounded a dour note. He said he believes Jackson County, by voting to exclude the proposed bypass, has sent the state an unmistakable signal: take its millions in road-building dollars elsewhere, down East most likely, a position Cowan emphasized he could not, and would not, support.
The proposed bypass also hasn’t fared well in other public-sampling tests in Jackson County lately. The project wasn’t a top pick on the list of road priorities compiled by Sylva town leaders or the county’s planning board either.
In the end, however, those lists don’t count — only the county commissioners’ list does: Commissioners’ picks are used to help develop a Top 25 of construction priorities for the six westernmost counties, which are grouped together for transportation-department purposes.
For that reason, commissioners needed to be very clear about whether the bypass is — or is not — a priority in Jackson County, said Ryan Sherby of the Southwestern Development Commission, who heads up a regional transportation planning organization.
So be it then, Chairman Jack Debnam said.
“Then I’ll go down as the one who took it down and kept it down,” Debnam responded to Sherby.
Debnam and other commissioners expressed frustrations with the state’s method of developing road priorities, with the chairman characterizing the process as a “roll of the dice” based on hunches developed without knowledge or adequate information.
“We don’t have traffic counts, no accident rates; when it leaves here — after it runs in the paper this week — nobody is going to be mad at anybody in Raleigh or anybody else, it is all going to be our fault,” Debnam said.
Commissioner Doug Cody agreed. He said he isn’t convinced that commissioners’ participation actually counts for much anyway, except to deflect anger from the state toward local government officials. And ultimately, Cody said, he believes the transportation department is likely to do exactly what it wants anyway when the time comes to build or not build roads.
“We’re kind of sticking our necks out for 100 percent of the blame for 15 percent of the influence,” Cody said, adding that he believes something does need to be done to N.C. 107, but that the answer was not this single choice — a major bypass going from two undefined points through five or six miles of the county — that was on the table.
“I believe there ought to be options, spelled out,” Cody said. “I don’t like a pig in a poke. … The way we are voting doesn’t take the need away form some type of improvement — it just voices our apprehension, or displeasure, with the process.”
Clearly frustrated, Debnam told Sherby, “you are coming to five commissioners ... who have no experience whatsoever in planning, and putting this burden on our shoulders.”
Historically, the 14-member state board of transportation, stacked with political appointees, wielded nearly unilateral influence on which roads got built.
But under Gov. Beverly Perdue, a complicated system aimed at being more objective assigns points for different variables. The list from commissioners is one of those many variables.
“I just don’t know what the governor thought … that we could be knowledgeable just by virtue by being elected? I think this whole system is just a way for DOT, or the government or someone, to throw the burden on us and not take any flak,” Debnam said.
Mark Jones, one of two Democrats on the board along with Cowan, joined his more conservative board members in voicing displeasure in the process. Jones said when commissioners are asked again in two years for another list, he hopes to at least have “ballpark figures” attached to the projects to consider.
“Then we might be able to make a little bit better decisions in two years as times and numbers change,” Jones said.
Sherby told commissioners that he believes their decision to not include a bypass around Sylva will have real ramifications.
“It’s my opinion that if you all don’t rank this project high, funding is going to go away for it,” he said.
Not to say they told you so, but the truth is … they did.
Construction of a wider bridge to span the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County was abruptly postponed this month after Indian burials were discovered. This frankly seemed to surprise only the state Department of Transportation, which had disregarded arguments made by nearby residents and former landowners that it keep bulldozers and such out of the archaeologically rich area.
Keep the project scaled down, the opponents argued. Even though a wider bridge has been planned for more than a decade, initially the state said it would build a new bridge in the same footprint as the old one, leaving the archaeological site untouched. Plans were altered in 2007, however, resulting not only in a much larger footprint, but also shifting the bridge over to sit on top of the site.
Cherrie Moses, whose family owned the land for 120 years, has been a vocal advocate for protecting the archaeological site in a field along the banks of the river. Moses has a long history of tussling over the issue with the state.
“It is an expansive area, which covers many acres near the Tuckasegee River. If work is done almost anywhere in our valley you’re very likely to discover most anything, including burials,” Moses said.
The DOT was supposed to go out to bid on the work in August but has delayed it until March 2012 to allow more time for an archeaological excavation of the site before building over the top of it.
“Protecting the important historical findings we have uncovered during the course of this excavation is vital to preserving the cultural resources of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and local citizens, as well as all citizens of North Carolina,” said Matt Wilkerson, an archaeologist for the transportation department. “We are prepared to take whatever measure is necessary to proceed with the utmost caution.”
The site was recommended for excavation based on previous archaeological discoveries in the area, although they found more than they bargained for. During the course of the excavation, crews found evidence of burials and at least two prehistoric houses, indicated by distinct patterns of post holes that show the outline of where walls stood.
The excavation was halted last fall because of these discoveries, as well as the onset of cold temperatures. The state said it plans to resume excavation of the site in the next few weeks.
Moses also expressed concern about where unearthed artifacts will go.
“It was my mother’s dream that any artifacts and burials be turned over to the Cherokee Museum including those items which were removed in the 1960s without any written permission from my mother or father. These unique treasures, no matter how small, should remain here within these mountains. They should not be taken to the State Repository where they will never be viewed by anyone from our area,” Moses said.
The $4.2 million will widen the bridge from 20 feet to 50 feet with three lanes, shoulders and a sidewalk to reduce maintenance costs, improve safety and reduce congestion.
Eve Boatright isn’t prepared to openly criticize motorists speeding past her bookshop along U.S. 23/441 south of Franklin. The British transplant has a keen sense of humor, and recognizes those criticized could, in turn, question her ability to drive on the right side of the road — literally.
Boatright, however, does believe the traffic flow along U.S. 441 seems too fast for such a heavily used traffic corridor.
“When you are right on it like this, you see people don’t slow even when it’s raining,” said Boatright, who represents the second half of the store’s name, Millie and Eve’s Used Book Store. “But, location wise, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
She means it. When the bookstore was forced by rising rent to change locations this month, the two business partners sought and found another storefront a couple miles closer to Franklin on U.S. 23/441. They didn’t want to kiss goodbye to the incredible amount of pass-by traffic, and subsequent drop-ins, this highway provides.
U.S. 23/441 is locally known as the Georgia Road. It’s so dubbed because the five-lane highway connects North Carolina and Georgia. This 10-mile or so stretch of road has experienced explosive growth since representatives from the two states met at the connecting line in the mid 1990s for a highway-ribbon cutting. That growth, and the corresponding increase in traffic, doesn’t pass un-remarked in a proposed comprehensive transportation plan for Macon County.
“While congestion is not yet an issue, mobility is compromised by the numerous driveway cuts, unsignalized left turns and density of traffic signals,” the proposed plan notes. “A look at this stretch of US 23/441 as a whole reveals 73 crashes took place from June 1, 2007 to May 31, 2010. The majority of these were ‘rear end’ or ‘left turn’ accident types.”
When the committee putting together the plan asked residents their opinions, “respondents expressed the problems along U.S. 23-441 using the following terminology: bottleneck, too many red lights, too many access roads, congested, unsafe, too many people trying to turn, too many lanes, it sets people up for accidents, not easy to maneuver, consider a median, middle turn lane is too dangerous, extremely dangerous, terrible, stop and go, crazy, disaster, gridlock, and ingress and egress are tragedies waiting to happen.”
“It’s a horror,” said Eric Hendrix, a Macon County resident who operates Eric’s Fresh Fish Market in Sylva, and who plans next month to open a second fish market in Franklin. “U.S. 441 South is what Sylva does not want N.C. 107 to become.”
Jackson County residents are embroiled in a debate about how or whether to “fix” N.C. 107 from Sylva to Western Carolina University. One option the state proposed was to build a bypass around the problem, prompting opponents to rally for “smart” roads versus new ones.
A bypass solution around U.S. 441 certainly isn’t on the horizon for Macon County. Instead, the proposed traffic plan suggests redesigning this section of road to a boulevard concept by removing the center turn lane and adding a median. Instead of making left-turns across lanes of oncoming traffic, motorists would make U-turns at stoplights to access businesses on the other side of the road.
Additionally, the transportation committee said there is local support for the plan, called a “super-street” design. The traffic pattern is currently all the rage since N.C. State University released a major study showing super-streets result in dual reductions of travel time and accidents.
The town of Waynesville has endorsed a similar redesign of its busiest thoroughfare, Russ Avenue, as a boulevard concept. Smart road advocates in Sylva want to see similar treatment of N.C. 107.
MaAron Cabe of The Gallery of Gems and Minerals along U.S. 23/441 did his own traffic count once, part of an effort to get a stoplight installed at a nearby intersection following a bad wreck. He tallied 20,000 cars a day.
Cabe didn’t get the stoplight. But he remains adamant that safety improvements near the store are badly needed. A popular movie theater is nearby, and there are several wrecks a year, he said.
The corridor is also home to many restaurants, Lowe’s Home Improvement, The UPS Store, the Fun Factory, the Macon County Fairgrounds, the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts. And, via spur roads, K-Mart, Southwestern Community College the Macon County Public Library and more.
Ryan Sherby, a transportation planner with the Southwestern Development Commission, a regional agency for the state’s seven westernmost counties, said he hopes people take time to comment on the proposal.
“It helps the committee to hear from the public,” Sherby said. “Everything we’ve heard so far has been on Needmore Road, and we’d like for people to look at the county as a whole.”
Needmore Road, a reference to a 3.3-mile gravel portion of road in Macon and Swain counties that the state has proposed paving and widening, isn’t actually contained in the plan. It’s too far along in the process. But, as is the case in Jackson County with the proposed bypass around N.C. 107, Needmore Road in Macon County has dominated most discussions here when it comes to transportation.
Sherby said the timetable calls for the committee to review the comments, and then to hammer-out a final version of the plan. It could be in front of county commissioners for consideration as soon as the June or July meetings, he said.
Comment will be taken from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 24 at Franklin’s town hall.
The suggested Comprehensive Transportation Plan tackles many road issues in Macon County. An adopted plan will give Macon County a leg-up on getting road projects prioritized with the N.C. Department of Transportation, which awards extra points (10 to be exact) when considering suggested improvements.
View the plan at: www.regiona.org/Macon_CTP.htm