Macon citizens deserve better from DOT on Siler Road project

A major road is in the planning stages, and neighbors and others in the community feel like it’s more of a runaway train that will help developers, encourage sprawl, and subsequently change their future forever rather than a consensus-building project to provide taxpaying citizens with an answer to their transportation woes.

That sounds like something we’ve written before, and unfortunately it is. A few weeks ago it was the Southern Loop in Jackson County that was apparently being moved forward on the road priority list by proponents inside the state Department of Transportation rather than by the citizens it is going to affect. This time the road is in Macon County and carries a price tag of nearly $12 million.

The project around Siler Road has been talked about for several years, but in November 2005 DOT planning documents contained language that said providing “access to sites available for commercial development” was one of the primary reasons to build a new road in that area of Franklin. Many know that this road would provide access to the land where developer James Vanderwoude owns almost 100 acres and wants to build a tourist destination that would be a replica of the fictional Mayberry.

About a year later, a subsequent DOT map for the project had removed the reference to helping commercial development. Instead, those documents reveal that the road will provide better access to the new campus of Southwestern Community College and Macon County’s new library. Apparently planners inside the DOT figured the public would find the new wording more palatable.

There are valid reasons for making changes to Siler Road and perhaps a few others roads that lead into this area. The new SCC campus will eventually enroll up to 2,000 students, provide instruction to another 1,000 continuing education learners, and employ up to 40 full-time faculty. Macon County has also built its library adjacent to the campus, and that attraction is already ramping up traffic in the area.

The problems with this project, however, are numerous.

For one, the motives are suspect. Many believe the needs of SCC and the library could be served by merely widening the existing road and straightening some curves. However, the DOT determined early on this option would not work and has since removed it from discussion. The state’s four suggested alternatives would build way more road than is needed by the community college and library. There seems to be a disconnect between the community’s wants and the DOT’s desires.

Although many citizens were quoted in our article last week, elected leaders and other officials are equally dismayed that this project seems to be stumbling forward. The Macon County commissioners have formally asked DOT to examine other possibilities besides the four alternatives it has offered. Officials with the N.C. Division of Water Quality, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the N.C. Division of Water Quality, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Little Tennessee Watershed Association have all criticized the current proposals.

The state Department of Transportation, unfortunately, is too-often guided by an old-school mentality that making bigger, wider, faster roads to carry more cars is almost always the answer to our transportation woes. That is simply not the case, especially in an area where the vibrant economy is dependant on protecting our rural and wilderness heritage, not encouraging traditional commercial development. Citizens want better than the off-the-shelf roads that don’t take into account what makes Western North Carolina unique.

This project should be sent back to the drawing board, and this time more Macon County voices need to be asked to sit down with the DOT to develop a better plan.

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