When new bikers show up for his weekly ride in Waynesville, Cecil Yount pulls out all the stops: a riveting trip through town to Super Wal-Mart and back.
While lacking in scenery, Yount is sending a message to the cyclists — look how easy it is to bike to the store.
Yount’s regular jaunts down South Main Street give him a rare insight on traffic, one he hopes to impart as the town crafts a vision for a South Main makeover. Namely, Yount doesn’t think the street needs to be much wider than it already is.
“I have yet to see the need for four lanes of traffic,” Yount said. “There have been fairly minimal times I have spent sitting waiting on a light. I just don’t see it.”
Yount, the chair of Bicycle Haywood NC, plans to be front and center at a road design workshop next Tuesday when the town will collect input on South Main from the community.
Perhaps it’s no surprise a cyclist wants a quainter road, one with slower traffic, wide sidewalks, shady trees, and not as many lanes for cars.
But even development interests aren’t necessarily clamoring for more lanes, even though South Main sports the ultimate magnet for commercial sprawl. Property owners raced to put their lots on the market when Super Wal-Mart came to town three years ago. They are still waiting for the boon, although real estate experts claim it will come to fruition sooner or later and has merely been sidelined by the recession.
Brian Noland, a Realtor with RE/MAX Mountain Realty, represents half a dozen sellers marketing their property for commercial development along South Main. His office sits on South Main, making Noland another authority when it comes to sizing up traffic needs on the road.
His verdict: three lanes would do nicely, perhaps even with roundabouts instead of the standard stoplights.
When asked whether South Main seems congested, Noland paused, then answered, “I don’t think it is.”
To be sure, he wheeled around and asked his coworkers in the office. Not congested, they concurred.
Noland believes South Main will eventually be home to a row of fast-food restaurants, drug stores and retail. But he wants to keep “our hometown image.”
But Noland is also trying to protect the lots he’s marketing. More lanes will eat into the property fronting South Main and make the lots harder to develop, he said.
That’s also why he’s a fan of roundabouts. Traffic lights equal turn lanes for stacks of cars to pile up while waiting for their signal. Those turn lanes add to the road’s width and encroach on precious commercial lots.
Roundabouts, on the other hand, keep traffic moving and don’t need turn lanes for cars to queue up in, Noland said.
Waynesville has two roundabouts, which were initially met with skepticism but in practice have been well received.
“I didn’t like them immediately when I moved here because they were new, but they really move the traffic through,” Noland said.
Road designers with the N.C. Department of Transportation are conducting their own feasibility study of South Main concurrently with the town, and have proposed a large four-lane road with a center median.
“I think everyone has been assuming that is what will happen there, that it will be four lanes,” said Paul Benson, Waynesville’s town planner.
But Benson said the DOT plan is too big and too wide for the town’s tastes. Town leaders want a more tailored vision, designed in keeping with smart growth principles and walkable community ideals.
“DOT strictly stuck with just a road and trying to get people through the area as fast as efficiently as they could,” said Mark Teague, a private traffic engineer consultant in Waynesville.
That’s largely what led the town to pursue a feasibility study of its own. The independent feasibility study will cost $55,000, with 80 percent of the cost paid for with a federal planning grant.
Yount is pleased the town is rejecting the DOT’s feasibility study and doing one of its own.
“I think the DOT study is going to do nothing more than create another Russ Avenue and that’s the last thing this town needs,” Yount said. “The philosophy needs to change from ‘Let’s move cars as quickly as we can’ to ‘Let’s have smart transportation alternatives and livable streets.’ We may need to de-emphasize moving a single car from one point to another.”
To most, anything will be better than the status quo. South Main doesn’t exactly look the part of a booming commercial district. It is pockmarked by boarded-up windows, weed-engulfed parking lots, cracked pavement — even concertina wire around one windowless cinder block building.
“That is not what Waynesville is all about,” said Ron Reid, the owner of Andon-Reid Bed and Breakfast. “That corridor just needs help. It needs to be cleaned up.”
Reid winces to think about tourists coming to Waynesville for the first time via South Main.
Reid, also a member of the town’s planning board, wants the usual pedestrian-friendly features of street trees, sidewalks, perhaps a planted median.
“I really envision something halfway between what Russ Avenue is and what our downtown district is,” Reid said.
Fred Baker, the town’s public works director, said the DOT’s feasibility study doesn’t live up to the town’s design standards.
For example, the town requires a row of street trees in between the sidewalk and road, while the DOT plan puts the trees on the far side of the sidewalk. The rationale: so swerving cars don’t run into the trees. But surely that’s better than hitting pedestrians, Baker said.
It might seem like a small detail, but whether street trees go between the sidewalk and road rather than the far side of the sidewalk speaks volumes to the road’s character.
“It gives you that sense of security on the sidewalk that you could relax,” Baker said.
There’s several points like this where the DOT’s proposed design diverges from the town’s street standards.
Waynesville’s standards call for bike lanes, but the DOT left them out, instead making the outside car lane a couple of feet wider so bicycles can “share the road.”
Another incongruity: Waynesville’s standards call for ?-feet-wide sidewalk but the DOT’s plan called for only ? feet.
Baker said he will lobby hard for the town’s higher standards.
But the DOT may ask the town to foot the bill for these as perks. When the town wanted a multi-use path included in the widening of Howell Mill Road a few years ago, hoping to fill in a missing gap of the Richland Creek greenway, the DOT told the town it would have to pick up the tab for the extra right-of-way required for a multiuse path. It was half a million the town didn’t have, Baker said.
“Ultimately when DOT starts buying right-of-way, it charges the town for the extra width for all these things,” Baker said.
Baker hopes that will change by the time a South Main makeover becomes a reality, citing the complete streets movement that is infiltrating the DOT.
More lanes will make it harder to also squeeze in the town’s desired bike lanes, wider sidewalks, a planting strip with street trees
“It would be nice if we could get away with three lanes,” Benson said.
But ultimately, whatever plan the town comes up with will need DOT buy-in, since the DOT holds the road-building purse strings.
DOT will have to be convinced that the road is wide enough to handle projected traffic, Benson said. Benson is anxious to get a look at the latest traffic counts for South Main, being conducted as part of the town’s process.
Those traffic counts — data on not just the number of cars moving along the road, but also where they are turning in and out — will be used to predict future traffic, which in turn will make or break the number of lanes.
Mark Teague, a traffic engineer consultant who used to work for the DOT, has been conducting counts up and the down the road for weeks in preparation for the public design workshop next week.
The real heavy lifting, however, will be coming up with a road design that amalgamates everyone’s visions.
“We are serving a lot of different groups, the residents who live and work on the road, the people who drive on it, bikes and pedestrians. We have a lot of different groups of people who are unrelated,” Teague said. “It is a balance.”
A community brainstorming session to gather ideas and visions for South Main Street in Waynesville will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
“Residents all throughout Waynesville use this space,” said Rodney Porter, a consultant with La Quatra Bonci, facilitating the town’s new street plan for South Main. “When the public is in charge of what they want to see their roads look like, the outcome is a little bit better.”
Drop in anytime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to explore maps and road images and offer comments during an open charette-style planning session. Porter will give a presentation on the project starting at 8:30 a.m., and at 9:30 a.m. there will be a design workshop to kick off the charette session.
Held at the West Waynesville Campus of Haywood Community College on South Main (the old Dayco Union Hall across the street from the Verizon Wireless store.)
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.
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.
“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 has one chance to get South Main Street right, or live with the consequences for decades to come. And the town isn’t taking any chances. The N.C. Department of Transportation had barely gotten started on a feasibility study for a street makeover when the town began hunting for grants to do its own independent yet simultaneous feasibility study.
The community has to speak up on the front end to let DOT know what it wants, said Mayor Gavin Brown.
“There is a default button over there and they will hit it,” Brown said. “That’s what I want to avoid. I want to make sure we have input into the process when DOT finally gets around to doing something.”
There’s a lot riding on a South Main makeover. It will dictate what Waynesville’s west side becomes. Will West Waynesville become the next West Asheville, transforming into a hip walkable community, albeit three decades from now? Or will it follow in the footsteps of Russ Avenue, a high-traffic commercial hotbed?
“We want to create a place that is a destination — a place that can be called a place and not just a street or a bypass,” said Rodney Porter, a consultant hired by the town to steer the feasibility study. “It is nice to look at public streets as public spaces. When we do that, we really can sort of revive a community based on a streetscape.”
But as a key gateway into town, South Main currently leaves a lot to be desired, said Porter, an urban designer with LaQuatra Bonci in Asheville.
“I don’t know if South Main right now is the character of Waynesville,” Porter said. “I think we can really change the voice of what this street is saying.”
Paul Benson, Waynesville’s town planner, didn’t put it quite so tactfully.
“It is so blighted right now, it is like a third-world country,” Benson said.
The street is pocked by vacant buildings with boarded up windows, and a crop of litter-strewn, weed-speckled parking lots.
Porter said it’s not terribly difficult to transform the status quo, however. A few tricks of the trade can make a big impact: trees edging the street, sidewalks and bike lanes, a planted median, clusters of benches — simply marked crosswalks would be a start.
“A strong design will give a sense of place on the street,” Porter said.
But all these niceties add up, with the street’s footprint inching wider and wider all the while. There’s five feet for each bike lane, six for each sidewalk, five for a planted tree strip, at least 17 feet for a median. The road quickly balloons to a 100-foot swath, and that’s where the rubber will likely meet the road, Benson said.
The wider the footprint, the more property gets gobbled up. In some cases, when it comes to the dilapidated buildings and vagrant parking lots, seeing them go might not be such a bad thing.
But South Main is also home to long-standing businesses that could be wiped out if the new street gets too wide.
“Does it sacrifice those of us who are in that route to get there?” asked David Blevins, owner of the gas station across from Super Wal-Mart. “There are people who do make a living from those rundown gas stations and I was curious how they will reconcile that.”
South Main is also the lifeblood for nearby neighborhoods: the upscale Waynesville Country Club, middle-class Auburn Park, and the many tightly packed, working class neighborhoods that radiate through West Waynesville, testament to its bustling mill village days when factories dominated the blue-collar side of town.
A wider road will push commercial development back and up against the edge of these neighborhoods.
“I don’t want to impact that community more adversely than it has to,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown. “My preference would be smaller so it wouldn’t impact the neighborhoods.”
Benson said middle ground might actually be simple. Usually, commercial interests are the chief lobby for wider roads. But in this case, the businessmen fear the front of their lots being lopped off too much.
“The people who want the widest road are also the people who don’t want as much of their property taken,” Benson said. “I think it will be easy to find middle ground on this project. It is so bad right now that anyone will welcome any kind of improvement.”
But there will be choices to make. It might not be possible to add lanes, plus a planted median, street trees, bike lines and sidewalks on both sides. Which make the cut will likely be the subject of debate as the planning process plays out.
Plus, the DOT has some flexibility to narrow lanes and narrow the median, making them smaller than the standard — deviating from that default that Mayor Brown referred to. But those are mere kinks, and not the purpose of the feasibility study.
“You can make those choices later,” said Derek Lewis, DOT road planner in Raleigh overseeing the DOT’s South Main feasibility study. “We don’t get that deep into the weeds in the feasibility study. A feasibility study is at a 40,000 foot level shooting down while still being as context sensitive as we can.”
The town kicked-off the planning process for South Main three weeks ago with a community meeting.
Property owners along South Main and existing business owners dominated the table. But Porter wants regular folks in the mix, too.
“Not just business owners but residents all throughout Waynesville use this space,” Porter said. “We want to make sure we are doing the right thing for this corridor as a whole and not just particular individuals. We want a strong public process.”
Nancy Felder, a resident who travels South Main everyday, sees a street makeover as the key to a better community.
“We’re interested in seeing things revitalized in this area,” Felder said.
The nearby Waynesville Country Club is among the players vested in South Main’s makeover.
“This South Main Street traffic flow is totally critical to our business,” said David Stubbs, co-owner of the Waynesville Country Club.
The independent feasibility study will cost $55,000, with 80 percent of the cost paid for with a federal planning grant.
When looking for the right consultant, town leaders wanted a firm that understood new urbanism and valued multimodal streets, incorporating pedestrian and bikes.
“We wanted a progressive plan,” Benson said.
Porter said his firm would take a holistic view of the street makeover.
Even before Super Wal-Mart opened in 2008, property owners eagerly erected For Sale signs accompanied by staggering asking prices.
But the commercial boom the community was both hoping for and bracing for has yet to materialize.
While property in the Super Wal-Mart development itself has moved — a Verizon, Best Buy, car wash, beauty supply store, and soon a Belk’s, Pet Smart and Michael’s — the rest of the property owners along South Main found they weren’t sitting on quite the goldmine they thought.
Commercial property values only rose 8 percent along South Main Street since the Super Wal-Mart came in, according to the recent property reappraisal conducted by the county.
Benson said the recession has merely delayed inevitable commercial growth on South Main, not sidelined it permanently.
“I think the national economy right now is what is going to keep that area from developing more,” Benson said.
For at least 15 years, a South Main makeover has been at the top of Waynesville’s road wish list. But it was the coming of Super Wal-Mart gave South Main a needed push to get the DOT’s attention.
A makeover was no longer a purely aesthetic undertaking, but the promise of commercial growth would mean more cars, and the element of traffic congestion now warranted an examination by the DOT.
The DOT in 2009 launched a feasibility study of the street. When exactly DOT will get around to redoing South Main isn’t clear. For now, it’s not in the DOT’s 10-year plan.
And while congestion is becoming a problem, until it gets worse, the project may not be considered a priority by the DOT.
How congested does it have to get before DOT will tackle the makeover?
“That is the $64,000 question,” said Benson. “As congestion get worse it will rank higher and become a higher priority to build.”
Yet without a street makeover, commercial growth might not materialize as quickly, posing a chicken and egg conundrum. Porter said a nicer street, if built, would help attract commercial development and investment.
“If we improve the street life will we have changes in development?” Porter asked. “That is what we are looking for: how can we re-energize this street.”
Mayor Brown believes that commercial growth will come regardless of whether the makeover happens now or later.
“The business people will go wherever they can to make dollars. If they see an opportunity to make money, they will do it whether there is a new road or not,” Brown said.
But, the town will soon have a plan on paper at least, giving prospective developers an idea of what they can expect to happen one day, Brown said, even if it might be a long time off.
“Once a businessman knows that, he will build accordingly,” Brown said.
Which is why Brown wanted to hire a consultant to come up with a makeover plan, even if it will be a decade or more before it earns a spot at the top of the DOT’s build list.
“Is it an exercise in futility?” Brown asked. “No, it will benefit the community as a whole.”
Meanwhile, the DOT has put the final version of its feasibility study on hold to see what the town and its consultant come up with.
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.
Anyone headed to Canton will need to book a little more drive time starting this fall, when a key downtown bridge is razed and replaced. A dog-legged detour around the construction is expected to seriously slow traffic on the town’s two busiest downtown streets, Park and Main.
The aging bridge was built in 1924. The total cost to replace it is about $3.5 million, with 80 percent of that coming from the federal government and the remaining 20 percent from state funds. The bridge has been on the DOT’s to-do list since 2000, said Brian Burch, division construction engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation.
For businesses perched on the edges of the bridge, the 16-month project could be quite a change.
“Apparently, the whole front of our parking lot is going to be taken up,” said Jason Siske, general manager at Napa Auto Parts, which sits just past the bridge on Park Street in downtown. His store is looking for a new home anyway, so the lack of road leading to their current location might not affect them for long.
Next door, however, Tom Wilson at American Cleaners has no plans to move.
“When they close one artery, it’s going to affect everybody,” said Wilson, who owns the store. “We just have to bear through it though. We’ve known this has been coming for years.”
Traffic moves through downtown Canton on parallel, one-way streets — Main Street and Park Street. Both have bridges spanning the Pigeon River.
With the Park Street bridge out of commission, traffic will jog over to Main Street where the bridge there will be pressed into service to carry traffic in both directions.
“People can expect some delays,” said Burch. “I’m sure we’ll have some delays during our rush hours in the morning and also when schools are dismissing.”
At the other end of downtown, Charles Rathbone of Sign World WNC isn’t anticipating too much hassle.
“I might look at changing my signage if it [Main Street] does go to a two-way, but I don’t really see it affecting us at all,” said Rathbone. “We’re going to be here with or without the bridge.”
But when the hassle, such as it is, finally subsides, contractors Taylor and Murphy say that the town will be left with a better, wider bridge. The firm won a $2.9 million contract, beating out six other bidders.
The bridge is now two-lane, but when construction closes in December 2012, there will be three lanes and a turning lane as well as wider sidewalks on both sides.
As part of the deal, the town will also come away with a greenway running under the east side of the bridge, which will connect to the town’s current greenway and provide safe passage for pedestrians under the bridge and into what will be Sorrells Creek Park.
“The bridge itself is obsolete to the traffic flow and the plans are to bring it up to date,” said Chris Britton, vice president of Taylor and Murphy. “It’ll be a lot safer, it’ll allow traffic to flow a lot better.”
Taylor and Murphy isn’t new to bridge building in Canton. The firm was behind the revamp of Bridge Street’s namesake in downtown earlier this year, has just completed work on the structure passing over Interstate 40 on Newfound Road and has a bridge in Cruso underway.
For the most part, said Britton, this bridge will be demolished and replaced by local laborers. He expects to have around 30 workers on the project, and all but the most specialized will be from the region.
Around half of the rubble from the soon-to-be-destroyed bridge will be recycled or sold as scrap metal. The new version, said Project Manager John Herrin, will also hopefully prove healthier for the river running beneath it.
“We’ll be making the river wider and cleaner, because right now you have three piers in the river and when we’re finished you’ll only have two,” said Herrin.
Contractors will start pulling up utilities and getting the bridge ready to come down by the end of August. The transportation department has a traffic flow plan in place, but they’re unlikely to need it until November, when Britton expects the bridge to close.
The town expects some upheaval during the process, but like Wilson, has long been ready for the replacement.
“We’re excited,” said Town Manager Al Matthews. “It’s going to be an inconvenience, but it’ll be good when it’s completed.”
The basic issue is safety. That’s it, plain and simple.
While one Jackson County commissioner has questioned the need for R-5000, a new access road for Southwestern Community College’s Jackson Campus, the board of trustees and I contend that not only is there a driving need, it accelerates daily.
From a single building in 1964, the Jackson Campus has expanded to six buildings, plus the new Early College facility built last summer. The same road that served a few dozen students back in 1964 now serves a soaring enrollment of 3,668 college students, plus faculty and staff. Add to that the 155 high-schoolers at the Early College.
With only one way in and out for the entire campus, a new road is needed not just to alleviate congestion, but to mainly ensure safety. During an emergency or the need for quick evacuation, a single road is a handicap.
Back in 1994, 30 years after the campus opened, the need for a new road was included in the SCC Master Plan. Developed by Moore and Associates of Asheville, the plan suggested the college consider other points of access to campus since there is only one way in and out. A possible area, they suggested, was from N.C. 107, with the proper right-of-way into the back property at its most southeast point.
That’s 17 years ago. Our board realized then, even before 9/11 or incidences like Virginia Tech, that we needed to protect the safety of our students.
In the 1990s the college began looking at alternatives. On July 28, 1998, then-President Cecil Groves presented aerial photos of the SCC campus to the board and discussed the development of a potential direct access road to N.C. 107. Since the college is built on a hillside, college officials decided the best alternative would be a loop road around campus with direct access to NC 107. In addition to providing safety for campus, it would help eliminate congestion at the N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 intersection.
On Feb. 12, 1999, the SCC Board of Trustees approved a plan of property acquisition, as outlined within the revised college master plan. Maps and aerial shots of a proposed route at the back of campus linking to N.C. 107 were included in that 1999 revised master plan. On Oct, 15, 1999, the State Board of Community Colleges approved SCC’s property acquisition plan, including the N.C. 107 access plan for a second means of access to the campus.
Following the state board approval, in 2000 we contacted various agencies outlining the college’s property acquisition plans and the N.C. 107 access road. Among these were David Gourley, real property agent, State Property Office; Wayne McDevitt, secretary, N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources; Ron Watson, division engineer, N.C. Department of Transportation; and Jay Denton, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
It has taken the college 10 years to acquire the three parcels of property necessary to build the road. During those 10 years the agencies involved were kept informed of our plans and progress. Also during those 10 years the college secured legislative action and funding to relocate the N.C. Division of Forestry offices. A planning grant was received in fiscal year 2007-08, with a construction allocation awarded fiscal year 2008-09.
I have been involved with this project since day one and I can tell you it’s been a slow, methodical process, certainly not fast-tracked at all.
Dr. Groves, now president emeritus, said it well in this brief statement, “What we had was an overwhelming need, but with 10 years of tireless planning we developed a workable solution, along with the funding to fix the problem.”
Just down the road Smoky Mountain High School, situated on a hillside with a single road in and out, faced a similar situation. DOT funds were secured to build a second road for the high school. The high school students on our campus, as well as our college students, deserve the same safety factor. We have tried not to burden our commissioners and local taxpayers, and that’s why we worked diligently to secure DOT funding for SCC’s new road.
(George Stanley is the SCC Project Manager for this project.)
The state Department of Transportation has agreed to pay 80 percent of the cost for a quarter-mile of sidewalks in old Cullowhee if Jackson County will chip in $9,000, or 20 percent of the overall price tag.
The DOT is building a new bridge over the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee, a short distance upstream from the existing bridge. As part of the project, the road would be rebuilt from Central Drive to about the area of the Cullowhee Café, according to County Planner Gerald Green.
While the project calls for bike lanes and sidewalks on the bridge, it did not originally include sidewalks along the rest of the new road section.
But Green told commissioners this week that DOT has agreed to put them in if the county would share a portion of the cost.
Rick Bennett, owner of Cullowhee Real Estate and a member of CuRvE, a community group working to revitalize the area, urged commissioners to help with the sidewalks.
“We think the sidewalks are a phenomenal idea,” he said, adding that the new bridge would “change the face of Cullowhee.”
He cited the low matching cost as generous “in these economic times.”
CuRvE has piggybacked on the bridge replacement to advance the idea of a riverfront park in Cullowhee. If built, the park would be multi-use, and likely include picnic tables, public beach access to the river and a boat launch. The bridge replacement, if designed properly, could facilitate the park, which in turn could jumpstart revitalization in Old Cullowhee.
Jackson commissioners, at Commissioners Mark Jones’ request, delayed a vote until fellow board member Joe Cowan could be present. The board is scheduled to make its decision at the August meeting. If commissioners do vote to pay for a portion of the sidewalks as requested, Green indicated the money would come out of next year’s fiscal year budget.
A vote of approval, County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners, would serve as “a commitment that in the future the commission would provide the funds.”
Construction is scheduled for April 2013.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.
“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”
The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”
At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.
Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.
Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.
Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.
“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.
The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.
It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.
“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.
Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.
“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.
Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”
“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”
Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.
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 planned new access road that will provide an exit and entrance into Southwestern Community College in Webster should not be a controversial project. The college’s growth, the entire country’s renewed emphasis on public safety in the post-9/11 era, and SCC’s unusual layout running up the side of a hill all point to the need for the project.
But this project has become a hotly debated topic among many in Jackson County now that the chairman of the board of commissioners is criticizing the preference given to the road despite what he says are other important needs in the county.
“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 at a board meeting last week. And, even more pointed, “I told (Department of Transportation officials) 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.”
What’s important here is that those critical of the road be sure to separate what are two different issues: SCC’s need for the road versus how this road was OK’d over other projects.
About 11,000 vehicles a day travel past SCC on N.C. 116, right past the school’s entrance. The college has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, jumping from 2,372 full-time students in 2000 to 3,668 full-timers in 2010. That’s a 54-percent growth in enrollment over the past decade, and yet traffic in and out of the school must use the same roads.
The safety issue is one that has gained priority over the last decade. As we pointed out in an article in last week’s newspaper, both Tuscola and Smoky Mountain high schools have had second entrance/exit roads built in recent years to make sure there was more than one way in and out of the campuses. County Commissioner Joe Cowan, in response to Debnam’s criticism, was adamant that public safety is a very important aspect of this project.
Finally, in this economy it pays to feed your biggest existing industry. In Jackson County, that industry is education. Between the two colleges, there is no larger employer in the county and no other entities that attract more people. It’s good for Jackson County when the state invests money in Western Carolina University and SCC.
But it’s easy to understand why the issues raised by Debnam are getting traction.
In Jackson County, the Southern Loop controversy has led to a substantial level of mistrust about just about all Department of Transportation projects. There’s also a new, combustible mix on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — two new GOP members and one Independent, along with two incumbent Democrats.
Conrad Burrell, who is the regional representative on the state Board of Transportation, is also a long-time member of the SCC Board of Trustees. The fact that he openly supported this road, and that some speculate it could provide a ramp that would aid the proposed Southern Loop — which Burrell also supports and many others in Jackson County don’t — has opened the door for criticism of the SCC project. Debnam thinks Burrell’s support of SCC has pushed this project ahead of others.
Some also think that DOT officials and Burrell are laying the groundwork for the Southern Loop, and that this road getting pushed ahead of others is part of that plan. Let’s hope not. Grouping these two projects could put SCC in the crosshairs of a controversy it in which it doesn’t need to be involved.
Road building decisions are as byzantine as any process in government. It’s never a bad idea to closely examine decisions by state bureaucrats about expenditures, especially when it comes to roads. The DOT has proven itself over the years to be an insular agency that too often makes decisions contrary to the wishes of the taxpayers who are paying its bills. Because of that, the public — and leaders like Debnam — has every right to scrutinize the projects that will affect their communities. Sure, the influence of someone as powerful as Burrell will definitely play a part in which roads are built — that’s his job as a DOT board member.
In this case, though, SCC shouldn’t be punished because of suspicions about the motives of those who support this project. The road is been discussed for more than a decade. Let’s get it done. The other issues will still be there to investigate for as long as anyone wants.