Displaying items by tag: N.C. 107

fr conceptautoA grand goal of bringing sidewalks to the main commercial drag in Sylva has elicited protests from one business owner who claims he’s the victim of costly and unrealistic goals of creating a walkable community along a five-lane highway.

There’s no clear winner in a complex and multifarious new system for ranking roads projects when it comes to the ongoing debate over Sylva’s main commercial drag.

In just-release road rankings, redesigning N.C. 107 out ranked the competing proposal to build a new highway bypass around it — but just barely.

The two dueling projects — redesigning N.C. 107 versus building a bypass to divert traffic from it — ranked second and third on a wish list of road building projects for the six western-most counties, with 45 and 44 points respectively.

The near tie means controversy is bound to continue over the best way to address perceived congestion on Sylva’s thoroughfare.

The two projects are neck and neck in the ranking process, despite a strong message by local leaders that they overwhelming prefer to rework N.C. 107. A regional transportation committee comprised of leaders from the six western counties got to weigh in on the road ranking — and in doing so awarded reworking N.C. 107 the maximum number of points it could.

By contrast, the regional leaders awarded zero points to the concept of a bypass around N.C. 107.

The bypass was catapulted forward anyway, however, thanks to heavily weighted points injected into the ranking process by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Sarah Graham, a transportation planner and community liaison for the Southwestern Planning Commission, sees the ranking process as a success for public input, even though the preference of local leaders was nearly outstripped by DOT’s own rankings.

“The conversation we have going on now is of improvements to the current road, compared to a few years ago when the conversation going on was whether or not we wanted a (bypass),” Graham said. “The community said we want to see what it would take to improve 107 before you build a new 107.”

Indeed, community input got the idea of reworking N.C. 107 put on the list in the first place, and then advanced it forward.

But, some Jackson County leaders are discouraged that their input into the ranking process, which showed a clear preference for reworking N.C. 107 over a bypass, got watered down after the state DOT was done with the list.

“It is frustrating to see that a project the county planning board and the county commissioners ranked very low to score so highly on the statewide ranking,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner. “It made the time the county commissioners and planning board put into reviewing the projects and ranking them seem to be wasted and it felt as though our input was given much consideration.”

 

Point jockeying

The road rankings were done under a new system launched last year that is supposed to be objective and data-driven. The DOT awards its points based on several predefined variables. The old process was considered subjective, determined in part simply by the preferences of politically appointed DOT board members.

Gov. Beverly Perdue ushered in the new system, as one of many state government reforms aimed at transparency and ending political corruption.

“It is a scientific approach that would remove so much of the politics involved in funding transportation and try to infuse the process with more science and more local input,” Graham said.

The ranking process can be a bit daunting to the novice, however.

The final list is a mish-mash of rankings by local leaders, the local DOT office and state DOT planners. Each has its own system for awarding points. Points are also weighted, so the points awarded by the state DOT office count for a greater share of the total than those awarded by local leaders.

The system is still relatively new, but local leaders on the regional transportation committee have already figured out a way to game the system and try make their points count more.

Since the DOT’s block of points are weighted more heavily, input by local leaders can only carry a project so far. The regional committee is given a block of 1,300 point to divvy up among its favorite road projects, with the caveat that it can’t award more than 100 of the points to a single project.

Last year, the regional transportation committee carefully spread their allotted bank of points among a long list of road projects, splitting hairs over how many points each project should get out of the total 1,300 they had to work with.

Their balancing act ended up being for naught once the DOT added its points to the mix, however. The preferences of local leaders were watered down once the DOT plunked its more valuable points into the mix.

So this year, the local leaders on the regional transportation task force decided to game the system. Instead of spreading their allotted points around to lots of different projects, they dedicated all their points to a handful of top projects and gave zero to the rest.

In the end, they got more bang for their points.

“They realized you have to work together to get your projects moved up the ladder,” Graham said. “They said, ‘let’s give 100 points, the most we can give, to our top projects and start pushing them up faster.’ If we are going to be given some say, we want it to mean the most.”

Graham said the transportation planning committees across the state have caught on to the strategy as well.

Convoluted? Perhaps.

But, public input actually had an influence in the state’s road project rankings, so Graham sees it as a success.

“If we had not put improvements to 107 on the list and given it 100 points, it would not have been on there at all,” Graham said.

The rankings are all well and good, but the question ultimately is which ones will get money.

“We don’t really know how much money is going to be applied,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. “What everybody wants to know is what is going to get worked on. We don’t know that yet.”

Technically, building a bypass is further along in the planning process than reworking N.C. 107. The alternative of reworking N.C. 107 emerged only a few years ago, while the idea of a bypass dates back two decades and has been inching ahead, albeit slowly.

“It is already in the development stage,” Setzer said.

But, “there is very little work being done on it,” he added.

Now, it is unclear whether that work should be halted, and the money put toward reworking N.C. 107 instead.

“We can’t hopscotch around the priority list,” Setzer said. “Because of the rankings, we can’t continue to work on the planning of the 107 (bypass) without addressing this potential project to widen existing 107 because widening existing 107 ranked higher.”

 

Devil in the details

While Setzer refers to the project as “widening” 107, that’s not what local leaders who requested the project would call it. They want traffic flow improved, but in their book, that doesn’t necessarily mean a carte blanche widening.

In fact, that highlights a source of contention between the community and DOT over what exactly a “reworked” N.C. 107 would look like.

DOT did a cursory plan for reworking N.C. 107 that calls for wider lanes, more lanes, bigger intersections and medians. The new footprint would be so wide it would take out nearly every business lining the commercial thoroughfare.

Local leaders and the business community believed there had to be another option for reworking 107, however.

“They didn’t like what the DOT suggested,” Graham said. “They said we don’t want the study defined for us. We don’t like the way it was defined for us.”

So a task force of town and county leaders, along with local business owners, hopes to come up with a more tenable solution. It has been meeting for a few months.

“There wasn’t really a clear vision of what had to be done with 107,” said Chris Matheson, a Sylva town board member and business owner. “There’s a lot more to consider than how to get from the light at 107 to the high school quicker. We are finding out just how complicated it is.”

Opinions on the committee vary on the extent of the congestion — which will ultimately frame out much of a “fix” the road needs.

Randy Hooper, owner of Bryson’s Farm Supply, doesn’t think traffic is that bad judging by his own commute.

“I can leave here in the afternoon and be home in 15 minutes. Twenty years ago, I could do the same thing,” said Hooper. “It takes no longer to get back and forth to work now as it did 20 years ago.”

The goal of the task force is to speak with one voice on what the community wants a “reworked” 107 to look like.

“We need our community leaders to be backing a single vision. We hope the corridor study will create the community consensus so as we move this project up the funding ladder we can say, ‘This is our vision. Help us fund it,’” Graham said.

Setzer agreed consensus is currently lacking.

“We are polarized right now on what we think we need to do, as a community,” Setzer said.

With its fast-food restaurants, box stores, gas stations and occasional backups of traffic, there’s not much that can be described as quaint about N.C. 107 in Sylva.

Except, perhaps, for Bryson’s Farm Supply, where Randy Hooper and wife, Debbie, sell such items as feed and seeds, hoes, bee-hive frames, and other rural must-haves to local farmers and gardeners.

Hooper, on this day — as always — characteristically attired in bib overalls, has worked at Bryson’s Farm Supply since the late 1970s. By then, he said, the highway was already four lanes. But Debbie remembers the road being just two lanes when helping her father build the store.

Today, this main business drag of N.C. 107 is five lanes. And, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation, it needs to be wider still to accommodate future traffic projections — a plan that in fact could lead to the state potentially paving right over this Jackson County landmark, as well as forcing many other “relocations” along the road.

The Hoopers have recently added a line of organic and naturally grown foods to their traditional feed and seed selection at Bryson’s Farm Supply. They are tapping into the burgeoning Jackson County segment of residents who frequent the farmers market, and who often drive more than an hour to Asheville to shop at whole-foods oriented grocery stores such as Earth Fare and Greenlife Grocery.

But their main clientele remains older and more traditional, and the traffic issues on N.C. 107 have created some problems for Bryson’s Farm Supply. While this might make big-city move-ins incredulous, the number of cars now using this highway is flat-out frightening to many of an older generation, Hooper said.

“What helped us out was about two or three years ago, a red light was put in,” Hooper said as he nodded toward the stoplight positioned on the busy highway directly in front of his store. “A lot of the older people were intimidated on this road.”

Jackson County resident Sara Hatton, busy shopping at Bryson’s Farm Supply, remembers when N.C. 107 was a two-lane road.

“When we got Wal-Mart in, that’s when it got really hectic,” Hatton said, adding that she does not, however, believe the transportation department needs to build a bypass to ease congestion as the agency also proposed.

Brother and sister Larry Crawford and Ruth Shuler, both avid members of the Jackson County Genealogical Society, remember further back than most — they can easily picture the days when there was just one small general store along this now busy stretch of highway.

“It was in Lovesfield,” Crawford said, and then explained that Lovesfield is after Love Hill. And that would be at the stop sign to Wal-Mart, which is across the highway from the Love Family Cemetery, which is behind Sonic Drive In — you always can count on genealogical folks to know their local place names, and history.

“The only (other) commercial development was the pole yard,” Shuler, who, like her brother, is intimately familiar with Jackson County’s roads from years of school bus driving.

The pole yard, she said, was located about where Cody’s Express Hot Spot is found at the intersection of N.C. 107 and Cope Creek Road. It was simply a place where poles — perhaps the phone company’s, Shuler isn’t sure — were cached.

Other than that, the area that now serves as the busiest section of Sylva was once simply a residential section of town, she said.

That’s hard to believe these days, given the hot debate about what best to do about N.C. 107.

There’s a novel solution afoot for traffic woes on Sylva’s commercial thoroughfare: widen the road so much it obliterates most of the businesses.

“You certainly wouldn’t have a traffic problem on 107 if you took out 80 businesses,” said Sarah Graham, a community transportation planner with the Southwestern Development Commission.

Yet that’s the top option in a study of how to fix N.C. 107 recently completed by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Of course, bulldozing businesses wasn’t the goal, but rather an accidental side-effect of all the lanes along with a 30-foot medians the DOT says will be needed one day to allay congestion.

The massive widening contained in the DOT’s study has been summarily rejected by elected leaders in Sylva, and at the county level.

“Nobody liked it,” Graham said.

Joel Setzer, head of the DOT Division for the 10-western counties, can understand why. It’s not exactly the vision people in the community had in mind, Setzer said, citing comments he heard at a public input meeting during the feasibility study.

“Folks said they wanted to see 107 operate more as a Main Street commercial district and be improved within the existing footprint,” Setzer said.

But 107 also has to move a high volume of traffic.

“For it to be both will be a difficult thing to pull off,” Setzer said.

In hopes of finding a middle ground, Graham has applied for a grant to hire an independent consultant to do a new feasibility study. Graham believes a solution for 107 is within reach if the community thinks outside the box.

“We’ve all been to areas with roads similar to 107 but that function better, look nicer, are safer to drive on, but are equally as full of businesses,” Graham said.

It will take a whole bag of tricks to solve 107 traffic woes, she said, ticking off a list of catch phrases common in traffic planning circles: access management, traffic calming, intersection redesigns, turning nodes, rear-access drives and shared entrances.

“We might just need to look at it one block at a time and look at fixes that are real specific to each area and what it can handle,” Graham said.

Graham hopes a do-over of the DOT’s feasibility study will come up with such suggestions.

Setzer said these micro-fixes might work for a while, but would be temporary Band-Aids.

“We can do a little bit here and a little bit there,” Setzer said. But “after some time we are going to run out of tricks.”

Jason Kiminker, a Sylva businessman and advocate with the Smart Roads Alliance, disagreed.

“I think the correct solution is going to be surgery. A very precise surgery. Not a bomb that is dropped on the road,” Kiminker said.

Setzer countered that the feasibility study is far from a final road plan.

“If this project goes into design, we would be looking at finding ways to avoid these impacts,” Setzer said.

Setzer said there is wiggle room in the lane width and the width of the median, which is a whopping 30-feet in the feasibility study.

But the community also has to figure out how much congestion they are willing to tolerate.

“Is congestion out there today an acceptable level? Can we live with more or do we need less congestion?” Setzer said.

Kiminker questions the so-called congestion, and considers the future traffic estimates predicted by DOT a flawed premise.

“They can forecast whatever they want then say 107 won’t be able to carry it,” Kiminker said.

 

What about the bypass?

Percolating at the edge of the debate over 107 is the looming question of whether to build a new bypass around the commercial stretch. Once known as the Southern Loop and now deemed the 107 Connector, the bypass would plow virgin countryside to skirt the business district, giving through commuters a direct route to U.S. 23-74.

Opponents to the bypass clamored for the DOT to instead fix 107 traffic congestion without building a new road.

County commissioners and town board members also called for examining fixes to 107 first.

So the DOT sanctioned the feasibility study, and like Setzer predicted, it concluded 107 would have to be much, much wider to handle future traffic on its own, without the aid of a bypass.

“I intuitively knew it would be very disruptive but I wanted to have people take a professional look at it,” Setzer said. “Everybody said fix 107, but the devil is always in the details as to what it would take to fix 107.”

Graham said even with a bypass, however, future 107 traffic woes won’t be resolved.

“The studies show the connector will relieve some traffic on 107 but not enough to solve our problems,” Graham said.

Setzer agreed.

“I have been an advocate for both projects. Fixing 107 and also offering an alternative to 107,” Setzer said.

Kiminker fears the DOT is using fear mongering to steer the public toward supporting a bypass.

“They are showing you all the worst possible scenarios,” Kiminker said of the feasibility study.

Kiminker said there are “much more palatable, much less expensive and more low impact” options, but the DOT had an ulterior motive.

“The entire point of the study was not to see how 107 was improved, it was about showing that the connector was needed,” Kiminker said. “We haven’t been fooled — this feasibility study can be shelved in the garbage can where it deserves to go.”

Setzer said the public wanted a feasibility study, and that’s what they got. He can’t help the findings.

“We had input from the general public, we had input from advocacy groups and input from local government that said they would like us to look and see at fixing 107 before relieving congestion through other means,” Setzer said.

Setzer welcomes a second feasibility study by an independent firm should the grant come through, as well as the continued dialogue it is bound to bring about.

Of course, talk is cheap. The price tag for the full-blown widening outlined in the DOT’s feasibility study is $103 million. And it’s nowhere on the horizon, at least according to the DOT’s long-range road building list.

Nonetheless, it’s not a moment to soon to start crafting a design the community can get behind, Graham said.

“At least the town and county would be armed with a plan so as funds came available to do some road improvements they would have defined what their problems were and solutions were on more of a micro level,” Graham said.

If given a blank canvas, no road engineer today would build a road that looks or functions like 107. Constraints posed by commercial development flanking the corridor certainly makes it harder to fix, she said.

“So it is working backwards a little bit, but there is no time like the present. I don’t think it is hopeless,” Graham said.

Waynesville and Sylva are at a crossroads, ones that will irrevocably shape the character of their communities.

Both towns are clamoring for a makeover of their commercial avenues — South Main Street in Waynesville and N.C. 107 in Sylva — but neither likes the plans that the N.C. Department of Transportation came up with.

Instead, both communities want to do their own street plans, drawing from new urbanist philosophies that use street design as a springboard for creating vibrant and lively shopping districts where not only cars but people feel at home.

But traffic is a fact of life, and whether the communities can marry the needs of the thoroughfares with their lofty visions remains to be seen.

 

Read more:

Waynesville primed for makeover of South Main

Fast for cars or pleasing for people? Tug of war rages over 107

The advent of the boulevard, the death of the five-lane

A look in the rearview at N.C. 107

The tiny town of Webster has suddenly emerged as a player in whether a controversial $12 million entrance road is built into neighboring Southwestern Community College.

That’s because the state Department of Transportation wants the town to sign off on a municipal agreement for the new route from N.C. 107 to N.C. 116. In other words, the town is still large enough to encompass some of the road’s boundaries, and that means big DOT seems to need little Webster’s OK.

But if a meeting of the town board last week is any indication of which way the wind might be blowing, it looks like this town of fewer than 500 souls could put the kibosh on SCC’s road, a pet project of SCC Board of Trustees President Conrad Burrell. He is also this region’s board of transportation member. The board, until Gov. Beverly Perdue somewhat changed the process recently, has had virtually total say-so on what roads get built when, and where, in North Carolina.

Burrell voted three times to give the SCC road project money, with $680,000 since 2007 already tagged for the new SCC entrance. Despite also sitting on the community college board, his voting does not violate the state ethics law. Burrell has emphasized that he does not view his advocacy for the road as improper since he does not stand to gain personally. A new building going up on campus has been named in honor of Burrell, partly in acknowledgement of his strenuous efforts to see the road built.

The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus, Burrell has said.

But others aren’t so sure this is a good use of such a large chunk of taxpayer dollars.

“I personally have some concerns about this,” said Webster Mayor Larry Phillips. “Not so much about the road itself, but the cost of the project.”

That concern, Phillips indicated, is directly attributable to Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam, who has embarked on a one-man crusade against the DOT project.

Debnam has publicly questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important when compared to other state road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials, reporting to The Smoky Mountain News, “I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”

Debnam is scheduled to meet with each of Jackson County’s three town boards to layout those concerns, including Webster. Debnam also used his position as commission chairman to stump against the project during a county meeting. Commissioner Joe Cowan countered Debnam’s criticism of the road. Cowan last week repeated his call that it would be only fair invite the DOT to a meeting to give its side on the project.

Cowan, like Burrell, is a Democrat, while Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said a date in July or August for such a discussion has been tentatively set, per Cowan’s request.

A new $12 million entrance road for Southwestern Community College got preference over other road projects in the region in recent years, partly thanks to support from the right friends in the right places.

Conrad Burrell, the chairman of the SCC board of trustees, advocated for the road not merely as a representative of the college, but also from inside the N.C. Department of Transportation. For more than a decade, Burrell has simultaneously served on the SCC board and as this region’s representative on the N.C. Board of Transportation, which holds sway over what roads get built.

Burrell holds one of 14 coveted seats on the state DOT board. His position allowed him to steer what road construction in a 10-county area from Haywood west.

Burrell three times voted to give the road funding during state DOT board meetings. The road has received $680,000 since 2007 for planning and design. Construction is slated to start the second half of next year.

Burrell’s support of the project did not legally constitute a conflict of interest, however. Under state law, a conflict of interest exists only when a public official or their immediate family member stands to benefit financially. In this case, Burrell is not paid to serve on the SCC board, nor does he gain financially from the new road.

At every DOT board meeting, board members sign a statement that reads: “I do not have any financial, professional or other economic interests in any of the projects being presented on the Board of Transportation meeting agenda.”

In an ethics training workshop for DOT board members in February, Burrell said he specifically asked about this issue.

“From the legal standpoint there is not a conflict and I am not benefiting from anything,” Burrell said.

Burrell said he began to wonder about it after the SCC board recently named a new building in his honor. The new entrance road will lead past the doorstep of the $8 million building bearing Burrell’s name.

Norma Houston, a public law expert with the UNC School of Government, led the ethics workshop.

“I remember him being very concerned about whether it was a conflict of interest,” Houston said, adding she was impressed that he asked.

“Did he somehow use his position of office as a DOT board member to help secure funding for the new road that would benefit the college?” Houston said. “Under the state ethic act, that is not a violation because there is no personal gain.”

The most he may have gained was his name on a building, which he may have gotten anyway. At a recent groundbreaking for the building, fellow college trustees praised Burrell for his contributions to the college, specifically citing his role in securing a new entrance road for the campus.

Houston said those in public positions still have to be concerned about the appearance of conflict, even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition.

“The question I always pose back is when the law doesn’t clearly say ‘no’ and you are left with the question ‘should you still do it?’” Houston said.

That’s when Houston recommends a little soul searching.

“Would he still have advocated for this project, would it be good for the community and good for the college, even if he didn’t serve on the board? That helps frame the individual’s thoughts on the ethics side of the discussion,” Houston said.

In this case, Burrell says he would. The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus.

“Even if I hadn’t been on the college board, I think this is absolutely a safety issue,” Burrell said.

Jack Debnam, the chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, has questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important compared to other road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials last week to share his concerns and learn more about the new road.

“I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room,” Debnam recounted. “I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”

Burrell has served on the DOT board for 10 years. His current term expired in January. He is willing to be reappointed for another term, he said, but the governor has not yet taken action.

 

Making the grade

DOT board members used to have great leeway in deciding what roads got built in their respective geographic areas. In fact, that was the primary role of the DOT board.

“We relied on them to tell us what was important in the division,” said Van Argabright, the western manager for the transportation planning. “The priorities were in their head, so to speak.”

In 2007, the state moved toward a more formal and objective method of ranking road construction. Projects are now graded on a point system. Local leaders are asked for input, which in turn earns points for a project.

“But back then you didn’t have a way to score,” Argabright said. Thus the power lay almost entirely with the DOT board members.

The SCC interchange landed on the state’s priority list in 2007, just before the new system was implemented. So there was nothing unusual about Burrell, being the region’s DOT board member, asking for a project to be funded even if he had a personal interest in it.

Argabright said the SCC entrance road seems like a valid priority.

“It certainly seems to me trying to help a community college is a pretty good thing,” Argabright said.

The new SCC entrance road isn’t the only project DOT has pursued in recent years that benefits the community college. A new road that leads past SCC’s Macon County campus is currently under construction. The existing road to reach the SCC campus in Macon is a narrow, dead-end, two-lane road. It will be widened and straightened, providing a better caliber road, and extended to tie into U.S. 441 so it is no longer a dead-end, a project carrying a price tag of least $13 million.

Both were on a short list of priority road projects that local DOT leaders tried to protect from state budget cuts.

Joel Setzer, the head of a 10-county DOT division based in Sylva, advocated to keep the SCC road projects on track despite others being delayed in the face of state budget cuts.

In April 2009, after reviewing a revised timetable for road construction, Setzer wrote in an email to a state engineer: “There are 39 projects with the schedules being delayed …. Of the 39, we see seven projects that the original schedule should be maintained.”

The new entrance to SCC’s Jackson campus and the improved road to SCC’s Macon campus were among the seven.

In another email a few days later, Setzer asked road engineers if they could get the roads designed in time should the money materialize as hoped.

“These two projects are being evaluated for schedule due to funding shortages. These are high priorities for Division 14. Division 14 is evaluating options for keeping these projects on schedule and delaying others. I need to know if the funding is made available, can you deliver these projects,” Setzer wrote. “Please let me know as soon as you can. I do not want to trade another project’s schedule for these and then not let them on time.”

Setzer said that the roads were not given preferential treatment per se. Given the funding constraint, the DOT was forced to choose which projects to keep on track and which to delay— but that doesn’t mean the SCC roads moved ahead of others in line.

“There is a difference between accelerating schedules versus maintaining schedules,” Setzer said.

Debnam questioned whether the roads were the best use of limited road building money.

“That’s $30 million of our division’s money that has gone into two glorified driveways,” Debnam said in an interview.

Debnam shared his disdain for what he claimed was preferential treatment for the SCC roads during a county commissioner meeting Monday. He even came prepared with a blown up map of the project.

Before Debnam could get started, Commissioner Joe Cowan stepped in.

“This report is not on the agenda,” Cowan protested. “If we are going to have this we need to have someone from DOT to tell the other side of the story and I object.”

“Well, they can come next time,” Debnam said.

Debnam told the audience at the commissioners meeting that they should all wonder about “the real purpose of this road.”

“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said.

“I don’t think anybody can become an authority on DOT projects after becoming a commissioner for only five months,” Cowan said after Debnam’s presentation.

Ryan Sherby, a liaison to the DOT for the six-county Rural Planning Organization, said the process for road building is complicated. There may well be “more pressing transportation needs” than the new SCC entrance, he said. But some projects are more complicated to design, cost a lot more money or have right-of-way hang-ups.

“This one may not be the best project in Jackson County that could have been pursued, but this is a doable project,” Sherby said.

The motivation behind a $12 million entrance road to Southwestern Community College has been called into question by a Jackson County commissioner.

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County commissioners, claims the road catapulted past others to the top of the list.

“We all had other projects pushed back to get this in,” Debnam said.

The road first appeared on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s list of proposed projects in March 2007. A month later, it was allocated $400,000 to begin planning. Construction is scheduled to begin in the second half of next year.

SEE ALSO: DOT leader advocates for SCC road while serving on college board

SEE ALSO (PDF download): DOT proposal 

That’s not exactly fast-tracked, according to Joel Setzer, head of the Department of Transportation’s Division 14, a 10-county area with its main office in Sylva.

“It has taken a normal pace for a project of the magnitude that it is,” Setzer said. Granted some projects take longer, much longer, but this one was very straightforward in its design, has no environmental issues and little right-of-way to acquire.

The purpose of the new entrance road is to serve SCC’s expanding campus and for safety, according to the DOT. The college buildings are built into a hillside. The entire campus only has one entrance now, and if blocked, students could be trapped during an emergency.

Commissioner Joe Cowan emphasized this point as a counterpoint to Debnam’s questions over the project.

“If we had a real emergency there and that one way got blocked, there is no way to get there with an ambulance or fire truck,” Cowan said.

Both Tuscola High School in Waynesville and Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva were in similar straits. Each had a single road in and out and are also situated on a hillside. Both have had second entrance roads built with DOT funds in recent years.

 

Bridge over 107

The new entrance road calls for an overpass above N.C. 107 with on- and off-ramps. The interchange could serve a dual purpose in the future for the Southern Loop, a proposed bypass around the clogged commercial artery of N.C. 107, according to Conrad Burrell, a member of the state DOT board who lives in Sylva. The bypass would need an interchange where it connects with N.C. 107 anyway, likely in the same vicinity, so this one could play that role some day.

“That would be the logical place to put it,” Burrell said, adding they have suggested as much to road planners in Raleigh.

Lydia Aydlett suspects the interchange for the SCC road was designed with the Southern Loop in mind. The same people in the DOT who planned the SCC road are planning for the Southern Loop — namely Burrell and Setzer — so it is only logical they would devise a way for the projects to converge, said Aydlett, a member of Smart Roads Alliance that opposes the Southern Loop.

However, that was in no way the driving force behind the interchange design for the SCC entrance road, according to Setzer.

“That really was not the objective of the interchange. We were not trying to speculate where the 107 connector, if it is ever built, would come in,” Setzer said.

Debnam accused the SCC entrance road of ballooning from a simple intersection as first proposed to a much larger and costlier interchange sporting an overpass with ramps. The interchange design was chosen in lieu of a standard intersection because it is cheaper and safer, according to Steve Williams, a road engineer with the DOT office in Sylva.

Since SCC sits on a hillside, the entrance road must climb up from N.C. 107 to reach campus, Williams said. An elevated interchange means less excavation into the hillside when making that climb.

“The cost was cheaper to do a bridge because of the size of the cut,” Williams said.

It is also safer. If traffic backed up at a stoplight, drivers woudn’t know it until cresting the hill.

“You would abruptly be on stopped traffic,” Setzer said. “We were worried that would be a safety issue.”

The overpass design came as a shock last year to Jeanette Evans, a member of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force that was tasked two years ago with crafting a long-range road plan for the county.

Since the SCC road was already in the pipeline, it was never specifically discussed by the task force. But it appeared on all the DOT maps they used.

“It looked really innocuous,” said Evans.

Evans wasn’t the only one surprised.

“Maybe if the overpass (design) was talked about, it may have raised some opposition on the task force,” said Ryan Sherby, a liaison between local leaders and the six-county Rural Planning Organization.

However, the interchange design was adopted early in the design process. At a public meeting on the project in 2008, the DOT presented three concepts for the new entrance road and solicited public feedback. Two of those three options called for an interchange. At a second public meeting in 2010, the DOT again showed maps and handed out brochures showing interchange-style design options.

According to an attendance roster, at least two members of Smart Roads attended the first public meeting in 2008 where the interchange design was shared.

 

Help to congestion?

As a side benefit, the new entrance will relieve congestion at the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 by giving students an alternative way onto campus, according to the DOT.

“I think it will take a quite a bit of traffic off that intersection. That was part of it,” Burrell said.

As of 2009, 11,000 vehicles a day traveled past the college on N.C. 116. Clearly not all of them were coming and going to the college — around 2,500 students take classes at the Sylva campus, but not all students come to campus every day.

How many vehicles would use the new entrance road, and whether it would take much pressure off the existing intersection, is doubtful, Debnam said.

“It is not going to pull that many people out of that intersection,” Debnam said.

Those coming to SCC from the Sylva area won’t be able to use the new entrance road. It would be used only by those coming from the Cullowhee area. Those leaving campus can use the interchange to head in either direction

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.

Jackson County commissioners have been asked to select their Top Six road priorities to pass along to the state Department of Transportation — a decision that could help decide whether a controversial, five-mile bypass around Sylva is ever built.

The commissioners’ input will help shape an even bigger to-do list: a Top 25 for the entire 10-county region of DOT’s Division 14. The projects on that list, in turn, eventually must vie for funding statewide.

The list compiled by the county’s board of commissioners is likely to figure heavily in whether the bypass (once dubbed the Southern Loop, now called a “connector” by the transportation department) moves forward. The bypass would be a new major highway bisecting Jackson County, with the intention of diverting traffic from N.C. 107.

Jackson County’s planning board recently compiled their Top Six projects. That recommendation was done to help guide commissioners in making their own selection.

All that sounds very tentative and preliminary. But, in fact, a 10-year work program compiled last year by the transportation department shows right-of-way acquisition on the bypass is scheduled for fiscal year 2016; construction would start in fiscal year 2018. The existence of actual startup dates for the project (if approved) are likely to underscore opponents’ beliefs that the transportation department has “fast-tracked” the new highway over widespread public wishes to the contrary.

Funding already has been secured, too, for an environmental study of the proposed bypass’ path, Julia Merchant, transportation department spokeswoman, confirmed last week.

“(But) the environmental planning has been placed on hold as the department waits to see the outcomes of the feasibility study to improve N.C. 107 and receive the county’s list of transportation priorities to determine how the county would like to move forward,” Merchant wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News.

Commissioners are expected to work on the list for the next couple of months. The regional ranking must be completed by summer, said Ryan Sherby, who oversees transportation for the state agency Southwestern Development Commission.

“The county commissioners represent the citizens of this county,” said Susan Leveille, a member of the Smart Roads Alliance, an activist group in Jackson County. “It matters a lot that they make decisions based on what the citizens want and what is in the best interest of the citizens in the future.”

Leveille questioned the potential cost of a bypass.

“It is our hope that (commissioners) will put other DOT projects ahead of this bypass that the citizen and experts say will not cure the ills on N.C. 107, and will cost so much in money and natural resources,” Leveille said.

 

Jackson County planning board Top Six highway recommendations:

• Redesign N.C. 107 in Sylva to improve traffic flow

• Add a west bound on-ramp at exit 85 on U.S. 74

• Improve Cashiers crossroads intersection, possibly with a roundabout

• Redesign U.S. 23 business from town to the hospital

• Install new interchange at U.S. 441 and N.C. 116

• Build N.C. 107 connector (Southern Loop), specifically on the existing Cane Creek/Blanton Branch corridor

Source: Southwestern Development Commission

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