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Wednesday, 20 February 2008 00:00

DOT accused of convoluted planning

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Opponents to the Southern Loop again urged the N.C. Department of Transportation to halt planning for the new highway last week during a meeting of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force.

They asked the DOT to hold off until the task force finished its long-rang transportation plan — a plan that could reveal new solutions to traffic congestion other than the Southern Loop. The DOT is backing the development of the long-range transportation plan. But meanwhile, it has also launched a $2.2 million planning process for the Southern Loop.

An independent traffic engineer, Walter Kulash, questioned the seemingly diametrically opposed planning tracks. Opponents fear the Southern Loop will become a fait accomplis if planning gets too far along, and that alternative solutions proposed in the transportation plan won’t get an honest look.

“I’m curious why we are continuing with a process for a very specific type of solution,” said Kulash, who has been enlisted by the Smart Roads Alliance in its quest for alternative solutions to the Southern Loop. “Why are we embarking on a study confined to a multi-lane freeway in a fairly narrow geographic corridor while we are going through a comprehensive transportation plan?”

Sarah Smith, a DOT staffer assigned to the task force, replied that the two planning tracks — the Southern Loop planning on one hand and the comprehensive transportation plan on the other — are two different processes.

That was Kulash’s point: the two processes seemed divorced when they shouldn’t be.

Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the region, replied that it was a safe bet to continue with the Southern Loop planning rather than wait on the outcome of the transportation plan. In all likelihood, the transportation plan will call for something akin to the Southern Loop — a new link between N.C. 107 and U.S. 23-74, Setzer said. It will be good to have a jump start on the planning since it is going to take so long, Setzer said.

“I think it is highly likely after you’ve done the analysis that some kind of link will be shown to be needed,” Setzer said. “It is somewhat of a gamble to proceed with project development, but project development will take years to complete. The concept of this link is going to take a long time to develop.”

By then, the comprehensive transportation plan will have caught up, Setzer said.

Conrad Burrell, a Jackson County resident who is the regional representative on the state DOT board, was at the meeting with Setzer but did not speak.

Susan Leveille, a representative of the Smart Roads Alliance on the task force, asked Setzer if the planning for the Southern Loop was proceeding without input by the task force.

“Unless you have given any input I don’t know about to the project engineer, the planning is proceeding,” Setzer replied. The planning is largely being handled out of Raleigh, with the local DOT branch serving in an advisory capacity only.

County Commissioner William Shelton, a member of the task force, said county leaders want to see the comprehensive transportation plan done first — before the Southern Loop planning.

“The way I heard it just now is there is a chance that these two things will mesh, and a chance they may not mesh,” Shelton said at the meeting. “I think we need to do everything in our power to make sure they do.”

Shelton reminded the room of the county commissioners’ resolution last fall calling on the DOT to place a comprehensive transportation list at the top of its to-do list, ahead of Southern Loop planning. County leaders were specifically asked to weigh in on the DOT’s list of priorities. The county commissioners unanimously ranked the comprehensive transportation plan above the Southern Loop, Shelton said.

“When we suggested this comprehensive transportation plan be brought forward as a top priority, our intention was that it would not be two separate things,” Shelton said.

Shelton said people need to know whether the comprehensive transportation plan will mean anything.

“The public perception is that this is a done deal. I think they need to be told in layman’s language that it is or isn’t and whether or not this comprehensive study is going to have an impact on the Southern Loop,” Shelton said.

Not everyone on the task force saw a problem with Southern Loop planning and a comprehensive transportation plan being developed concurrently. Dr. Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College, said the two will in all likelihood mesh. Groves said it is wise to get a jumpstart on Southern Loop planning. The planning will take so long as it is, additional delays should be avoided.

“By then you really have a mess brewing on 107,” Groves said.

 

Task force tangle

Setzer said he had hoped the comprehensive transportation plan would be done by now, then there wouldn’t be a timing problem that everyone seems so concerned about. But, it’s not too late for the task force to influence the planning process for the Southern Loop, he said. The comprehensive transportation plan will take a year to complete. Planning for the Southern Loop will still be in the early stages by then, Setzer said.

“If your work is able to proceed on schedule and be close to 2009, and you progress in your work, those two processes will be meshed together,” Setzer told the task force.

Leveille seemed offended. She said the task force would be delighted to proceed in its work if DOT would stop holding them up. The task force has been stalled by a revolving door of DOT staffers assigned to oversee the task force, she said. The current staffer makes number four. In between changes of the guard, the task force was put on hold, sometimes for as long as a year. Jay Coward, a member of the task force, has accused the DOT of purposeful “evasion and delay” of the task force.

“To be held up for five years because the DOT couldn’t join us, I trust that won’t happen again,” Leveille said. “There are enough of us here with good minds that we can move forward with something.”

On the other hand, task force members did not take the initiative to meet in the absence of a DOT staffer to oversee them. That’s largely due to a presumption that the DOT controlled the task force, down to what could and couldn’t be discussed at meetings, making the staffer in charge feel like a handler rather than facilitator.

 

All in the wording

Kulash didn’t dispute that N.C. 107 — the commercial drag and commuter route in Jackson County — needs a new link. But not necessarily a multi-lane freeway, he said. Kulash suggested broadening the scope of the Southern Loop planning so the DOT wouldn’t pigeonhole itself.

“I understand you have to get started on something now but can that something have a broader scope?” Kulash asked.

Setzer said not to worry. The scope of the project hasn’t been set yet, he said.

Kulash questioned that assertion, however, pointing to a DOT memo soliciting consulting firms to oversee the Southern Loop planning process. The memo describes the job as “a multi-lane facility on new location” with “controlled access.”

“That knocks out anything other than multilane and any use of existing roads,” Kulash said. “If I was a consultant — and I am a consultant — I would look at this and say ‘You are asking me to design a multi-lane on a new location.’”

Setzer said that wording was simply used to solicit consultants. Before the consultants get started, they will get new marching orders. That hasn’t happened yet, he said.

In that case, Kulash asked Setzer to change the wording so as not to bias the consultants. Better yet, Kulash asked if the task force could participate in developing the wording to ensure that a “full and fair range of alternatives” are studied by the consultants.

Setzer said it would.

“The DOT is not focused on just the alternatives that everyone says they are,” Setzer said. “There is nothing hard and fast and there is nothing off the table.”

Kulash was still skeptical, again pointing to the language in the memo seeking consultants.

“I don’t see a transparent process so that the task force members can satisfy themselves that it is going forward with a sufficiently broad scope,” Kulash said.

A consulting firm for the Southern Loop has already been selected, KO Associates out of Raleigh. The DOT has nearly finalized its contract with KO, and the language is indeed less specific than the original memo, according to Michael Penney, contract management engineer with the DOT in Raleigh.

“The contract isn’t written so specifically that it can’t evolve. It doesn’t stipulate the type of facility,” Penney said in a phone interview.

The actual contract with KO describes the job this way: “The consultant will perform project development associated with the proposed Southern Loop around Sylva-Dillsboro from U.S. 23-74 to U.S. 441.”

That leaves it open for the consultants to consider a boulevard-type road, for example — although that’s not the impression Penney said he had of the project.

“If you are trying to move traffic from point A to point B most expeditiously with the least amount of congestion then a boulevard doesn’t achieve that,” Penney said. “It sort of depends on what is driving the process.”

Penney said his impression of the job was to design a new highway that would move large volumes of traffic quickly. That concept was laid out in the county’s old comprehensive transportation plan developed in the early 1990s, Penney said.

“Based on what we were provided, which was from a previous comprehensive plan, that’s what we were told,” Penney said. “If they change the comprehensive plan that would have to be taken into consideration.”

The real marching orders for the Southern Loop planning — the holy grail of the planning process so to speak — will be the “purpose and need” statement. That has yet to be developed, but once it is, it becomes the litmus test by which everything else is judged. If an alternative doesn’t meet the “purpose and need,” it won’t be considered.

If the “purpose and need” is broad — such as reducing traffic congestion on N.C. 107 — it opens the door for all sorts of alternatives to be considered. If the purpose and need statement is narrow — such as build a new road around Sylva and Dillsboro — it will confine the options that are considered.

Setzer said the “purpose and need” statement likely won’t be drafted until the fall.

 

What is the Southern Loop?

The Southern Loop is a proposed freeway that will bisect Jackson County with an interchange over N.C. 107 somewhere between Cullowhee and Sylva. It will tie into U.S. 23-74 somewhere north of Sylva and U.S. 441 somewhere south of Dillsboro.

 

What is a comprehensive transportation plan?

After five years of various hold-ups, the N.C. Department of Transportation is finally embarking on a comprehensive transportation plan for Jackson County.

In a nutshell, the plan will predict future traffic congestion and come up with solutions.

“We’ll have a number for future traffic, and we’ll have the carrying capacity for the roads. What roads in the future are going to go over that capacity? That’s where we have to come up with solutions — to address those roads that are over capacity,” explained Sarah Smith, a DOT staffer in Raleigh assigned to the comprehensive transportation plan.

Solutions could mean new roads or improving traffic flow of existing roads. Solutions could mean the controversial Southern Loop freeway or smarter intersection designs. The Jackson County Transportation Task Force will serve as an advisory board during the process, but the plan will ultimately be developed by DOT staff in Raleigh.

Residents have two chances to influence the transportation plan. The first is by filling out a survey in March. The second is public workshops in late-summer. Watch The Smoky Mountain News for how to participate in both.

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