Residents living in the path of the bypass got a letter in the mail announcing that highway surveyors studying the new route may be seen in the air and on the ground in coming weeks.
It seemed like a reversal, since just last year the North Carolina Department of Transportation capitulated to public sentiment and indefinitely pulled the plug on the bypass.
“We had told everyone we would not be working on that project,” said Ed Greene, the head of DOT Division 14, which includes Jackson County. “Really that letter shouldn’t have been sent out. That got everyone upset because they said ‘Hey, you told us you weren’t working on this project.’ There was some confusion there.”
State highway engineers quickly retracted the letter and canceled the work order for the survey of the bypass, once known as the Southern Loop but now dubbed the “connector.”
“There was a misconception from the people that when they got the letter they thought, ‘Oh-oh, the N.C. DOT is tricking us. They are still trying to do the connector,’” said Zahid Baloch, the DOT project planning engineer in Raleigh assigned to the project.
That is not the case, Baloch said, and there’s a legitimate and logical explanation. Three different DOT officials from Sylva to Raleigh all took a stab at the layman’s version of that explanation.
“Let me explain to you what is going on,” Baloch said, starting at the beginning.
The idea of a bypass around Sylva’s main commercial drag of N.C. 107 dates back at least a couple of decades. It was gradually massaged from inception to feasibility, earning a spot on the DOT’s official road project docket.
But a few years ago, DOT studies concluded a bypass alone would not solve the congestion on the commercial drag. Congestion on N.C. 107 is driven largely by people going and coming from the businesses themselves — Walmart, fast-food joints, the grocery store, banks, gas stations, schools and the like, Baloch said.
So the DOT added a second project to the docket: a redesign of N.C. 107 to improve traffic flow.
An opposition campaign against the bypass had long argued that a redesign of N.C. 107 was preferable to a cross-county bypass cutting through rural areas. Bypass opponents cheered the move, but it wasn’t a complete victory.
The bypass wasn’t struck, but remained on the list as well.
Instead of an either-or proposition, both the bypass and redesign were needed, according to the DOT division leader at the time, Joel Setzer.
That changed last year, however. The DOT announced last summer it would table the bypass, known as the connector, and focus on the redesign to improve traffic flow on N.C. 107.
“Now the connector is out of the question,” Baloch said. “No work related to the connector has been done.”
May as well
So how, then, did a letter get sent to property owners in the proposed path of the connector telling them to expect surveyors?
First of all, the so-called survey work that the letter described wasn’t the typical boots-on-the-ground variety. This surveying was really more of an aerial photography flyover. Markers are stuck in the ground periodically for visual point of reference from the air, but actual ground work is limited.
When the aerial survey crews are dispatched to a region, they get a list of all the proposed road projects in that area.
“We say, ‘OK we want this, this, this and this,’” Baloch said.
Baloch’s road design team had technically ordered an aerial survey of N.C. 107 for the planning stages of the redesign.
To the aerial photography guys in Raleigh, it made sense to survey the bypass corridor while they were up here.
“Somebody said, ‘While they are here let them fly the whole thing and we will have it.’ I guess they didn’t get the memo that we aren’t working on the project anymore,” Green said. “Somewhere in the chain of command with the surveyors, they didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be working on that project. That one just slipped through.”
But it’s a tad more nuanced than that. The real issue is that the bypass — even though it was put on the back burner — was still on the DOT’s list as an active project, at least technically.
“Technically, yes,” Green said.
From the ranks
It’s unclear whether the bypass will ever come off the list for good, or continue to stay parked on the list, muddying the waters.
Every couple of years, the DOT examines its master list of road projects and reranks them. The list serves as a blueprint of what projects it should be working on.
Two years ago, the debate over the bypass hit a critical turning point when the new list came out.
For the first time, the N.C. 107 redesign slightly edged out the bypass in the ranking process. That’s partly because, for the first time, local leaders in Jackson County could weigh in substantively in DOT’s ranking process.
Local leaders were given a bank of points to apply toward their favorite projects. Their scores factored in to the overall rankings.
Jackson County commissioners gave the redesign of N.C. 107 the maximum score of 100 points, but awarded zero points to the bypass. The bypass was dragged down as a result, and the redesign moved one notch ahead of it.
But that list was never actually finalized.
“It has been running as a draft,” said John Conforti, who oversees DOT project development in Western North Carolina.
The new 2012 list came out just as new Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration was taking over in Raleigh, and with it, a host of administrative changes were ushered in at the state level — including an overhaul of the DOT and yet another new road ranking formula.
“The connector is out of the question but now we have this new prioritization process coming through. The new administration said, ‘Just wait until the new one comes out,’” Baloch said.
In the meantime, the DOT has used the 2012 rankings as a working document, but since that list was never formally adopted, it created a bookkeeping problem for the N.C. 107 redesign. Road planners like Baloch have to code their work under a specific project number.
While their work has been squarely focused on the redesign of N.C. 107 for the past year, technically, it’s all been getting coded under the project number for the bypass.
And that, in turn, explains why the aerial survey crew was going to do a flyover the bypass route instead of just the existing N.C. 107 corridor, Baloch said.
In hindsight, it wasn’t very realistic to think the state would allocate funding for two projects — both the bypass and the N.C. 107 redesign — that tackle congestion along the same commercial artery in a semi-rural county.
“We knew only one project would proceed at one time,” Conforti said.
And if only one would prevail, the ranking process will automatically favor the one with the most bang for its buck.
Building a new highway over virgin countryside is far more expensive. If a redesign of the existing road can accomplish the same goal of moving traffic more smoothly, and at a much smaller cost, that’s the one that would win out, Conforti said.
“I think everybody is on the same page,” Conforti said.