Jackson County commissioners were split over whether to endorse the construction of a controversial new highway outside of Sylva when the issue came up for a vote at a county meeting Monday.
The highway was included on a wishlist being sent to the N.C. Department of Transportation to guide future road projects in Jackson County. Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to sign off on the list, which was developed over the past year by a citizen-driven transportation task force.
The task force never formally endorsed the transportation plan that bears their name. The plan includes the 107 Connector, formerly known as the Southern Loop. The proposed road, which is already in the planning stages by DOT, would bypass the busy commercial corridor of N.C. 107, funneling traffic from the Cullowhee area directly to U.S. 23-74 north of Sylva.
Chairman Brian McMahan, who voted to approve the plan, explained that the vote should not be seen as an endorsement of the proposed 107 Connector.
“I want to make note that if we approve this plan, it does not mean we have approved or endorsed the construction of a new highway,” McMahan said.
The board approved the transportation plan with the caveat that they could withdraw their support for the plan following an environmental impact study of the new highway.
McMahan said the board wanted the chance to see the findings of ongoing N.C. Department of Transportation studies of traffic patterns and congestion on N.C. 107, the main commercial artery through Sylva and commuter route in the county.
“It’s just saying we’re going to continue the planning process, continue gathering the data and await eagerly the DOT to present its findings,” McMahan said.
The comprehensive transportation plan includes a long list of potential projects that could create a freer flow of traffic patterns in Jackson County. The Jackson County Transportation Task Force, a group made up of residents, business people and elected officials, served as an advisory board during the process of creating the plan, but the final version was ultimately developed by DOT staff in Raleigh then vetted through public hearings.
The adoption of the long-awaited comprehensive plan ends a five-year project to obtain a blueprint from the DOT for a road plan to accommodate the county’s growing population. While a victory for public input into the road planning process, the inclusion of the N.C. 107 Connector –– a project opposed by many locals –– makes that victory hollow for some.
Commissioner William Shelton, who served on the Jackson County Transportation Task Force, voted against adopting the plan because he wanted to send a message.
“In voting on this, I’m going to vote my conscience. I just want to send a message to the public and the DOT that this is not a heavy endorsement of the connector,” Shelton said.
Shelton said that while he backed nearly every aspect of the plan, including its community involvement process, he felt strongly that a ‘Yes’ vote could be seen as an endorsement of the N.C. 107 Connector.
Commissioner Tom Massie also voted against adopting the plan. Massie cited DOT statistics that show the connector road will likely not alleviate the traffic problems plaguing N.C. 107. Massie said the project would displace residents and create a negative environmental impact on the county.
“The reality is this is not going to reduce traffic on 107, particularly in the area where we want to go,” Massie said.
Massie said that the commuter traffic snarl that crops up on N.C. 107 twice a day is a small inconvenience.
“What are you spending? Another 10 minutes? That’s not traffic congestion in any other moderatel-sized community in this country,” Massie said.
Commissioner Joe Cowan voted for the plan and supports the construction of the connector road. He expressed his concern that a rejection of the plan would lead the DOT to yank the money already in the pipeline for the planning phase.
“This money is not going to last forever,” Cowan said. “All we need to do is turn it down a few times and it’ll go away.”
Cowan said the N.C. 107 Connector was the best solution he has heard regarding traffic congestion on Sylva’s commercial corridor.
“I’ve heard it discussed all of my life and I’m tired of listening to it. There is no good alternative,” Cowan said.