DOT needs to hit the brakes on Southern Loop

There’s one fundamental reason the Southern Loop needs more discussion before it is considered a done deal — the simple fact that the citizens whose tax dollars pay for roads should, ultimately, decide the transportation future of the community in which they live. So far, the Southern Loop has not officially been endorsed by the leaders who act as the voice for Jackson County’s citizens. It’s that simple.

The Southern Loop is a proposed road that would bisect Jackson County, starting at U.S. 441 outside Dillsboro, cutting somewhere between Sylva and Cullowhee, and then meeting up with the U.S 23-74 bypass. The road has been hotly debated for several years. Some argue it is the best solution to the existing traffic woes that plague N.C. 107.

Others believe that a coordinated plan that might include a series of smaller steps — better access management along the road, perhaps some much smaller new roads, and taking steps to encourage mass transit — would be a better, wiser, more progressive solution to the county’s traffic problems. A group calling itself the Smart Roads Alliance formed years ago to offer alternatives to the road, and it is once again pushing the DOT to perform a comprehensive study of other options prior to ramming the gargantuan Southern Loop down the collective throat of the citizenry.

Part of the controversy surrounding this project stems from a problem that seems to dog the state Department of Transportation on a regular basis. From the outside looking in, it appears that road planners inside the agency want the Southern Loop no matter what. DOT board member Conrad Burrell, a Jackson County resident, said a few years ago that eventually some version of the Southern Loop was going to be necessary.

“Sooner or later, it’s got to happen. We can prolong the agony for a while, but sooner or late it’s going to happen,” Burrell told this newspaper in July 2003.

In addition to Burrell’s support, it seems the Southern Loop recently showed up on a road priority list that is supposedly developed by community leaders. When questioned, however, none of the community leaders on the committee that develops the priority list had asked that the Southern Loop be included. Instead, the proposed road was put on the list by the coordinator of the committee, who is a contract employee for DOT.

Citizens opposed to the road have shown up at several meetings over the past couple of weeks. They have won an endorsement from the county commissioners and the Transportation Task Force to ask DOT to complete a comprehensive study of options for alleviating traffic problems on N.C. 107. It’s the kind of study that should have been completed years ago.

There is a very real need for local communities to be the drivers of a project of this magnitude. So far it seems most of the support for the Southern Loop project is coming from inside the DOT. That’s not how the system should work. Let’s do the study first, and then see how the citizens feel.

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