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.