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Wednesday, 19 September 2007 00:00

Southern Loop on priority list, committee says it wasn’t them

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Jackson County leaders might be lending their tacit endorsement, albeit unintentionally, to the proposed Southern Loop, a controversial highway that would bisect Jackson County.

The Southern Loop has cropped up on a priority list of road projects presumably developed by a regional transportation advisory committee. However, none of the community leaders serving on the committee know how the Southern Loop got on the list.

The priority list is supposed to be developed by the advisory committee each year and sent to the Department of Transportation. The list helps guide DOT decisions about which roads to build. It appears the Southern Loop has been put on the list internally by the DOT, which helps coordinate the creation of the list, rather than by members of the advisory committee itself.

The list is still in draft form. The transportation advisory committee is slated to vote on the list next week. If the Southern Loop stays on the list, the DOT could take it as an endorsement of the proposed highway by community leaders, even though they didn’t actually put the project on the list themselves.

“If they vote for this list, then that would be an endorsement for that project,” said Conrad Burrell, a state DOT board member from Sylva.

Ryan Sherby, who coordinates the list through his role as regional transportation planner at the Southwestern Commission, said he doesn’t know who asked him to put the Southern Loop on the list.

“I don’t track who ideas come from. If someone sends me a recommendation, I put it on the list,” Sherby said. Sherby said if the advisory committee wants it off the final list before it gets sent to the DOT, he’ll take it off.

“I don’t know how heavy this weighs,” Sherby said of the list. “However, if we take the Southern Loop off the list it would send DOT a clear message that Jackson County does not want the Southern Loop, so this is one mechanism to influence (road projects).”

The list was late in coming this year. Members of the transportation advisory committee will be asked to vote on the final list on Monday, Sept. 24. The committee got its first look at the list just last week, however, only 10 days before the members would have to vote on it. The public had even less time to digest the list. A last-minute public hearing on the list is being held Sept. 19 — only five days after the list was released.

The rush job on the list means the projects weren’t exactly vetted by the transportation advisory committee. Because of that, the inclusion of the Southern Loop on the list won’t be taken as a hard and fast endorsement of the project in the DOT’s eyes, said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties.

“If the (advisory committee) had spent time and put all the projects on the list out for discussion and they had gone through rigorous debate and they came back and endorsed this project, I would take this as an endorsement,” Setzer said. But that’s not how the process played out this year.

Setzer said members of the advisory committee shouldn’t be afraid to vote on the list because of some unintentional signal it might send to the DOT about the Southern Loop.

“I’m not sure I would take a vote of ‘yes’ on this priority list as an endorsement for that one project,” Setzer said.

 

Commissioners ranking

During the rushed creation of the priority list, Jackson County commissioners were asked to rank three road projects for Jackson County. The three projects on the list were shoulder widening along N.C. 107 through Tuckasegee, a new access road around Southwestern Community College, and the Southern Loop. Commissioners ranked the Southern Loop last. By virtue of ranking the Southern Loop at all, albeit last, it could be perceived as an endorsement of the project by commissioners when the list goes to the state.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland said that was not the case, however.

“They had no input into the creation of the list,” said Westmoreland. “The question that was presented to us was to have the commissioners rank in order the projects that were on the tentative list.”

Commissioners said they simply ranked the list that was provided to them.

“We were just given those projects to rank,” said Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan. As far as the Southern Loop being on the list, “It was not an official endorsement,” McMahan said.

The transportation advisory committee is comprised of community leaders in the six western counties — namely county commissioners, town board members, economic development directors, county planners, and county and town managers.

From Jackson County, representatives on the committee include County Manager Ken Westmoreland, Sylva Town Manager Jay Denton, Dillsboro Town Administrator Herb Nolan and County Planner Linda Cable. All four said they did not offer any input into the creation of the list or the inclusion of the Southern Loop on the list.

How the Jackson County contingency on the advisory committee will vote is not yet known.

Denton said he will ask Sylva town board members for direction at their town meeting this week.

“I will ask them what their recommendation would be,” Denton said. “If they want to object to that, I’ll vote that way. If they want to approve it, I’ll vote that way.”

Dillsboro town administrator Herb Nolan said he would poll his board to see how they want him to vote on the list.

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