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Macon wades gingerly toward transportation plan

As the main coordinator of a comprehensive transportation plan for Macon County, Ryan Sherby faces a long road ahead of him.

Sherby and a local steering committee — with the help of public input — aim to determine the transportation projects that Macon County needs most.

The comprehensive transportation plan will look as far ahead as 25 years, also exploring alternative means of transportation like public transit, walking and biking.

The process is a joint effort undertaken by the towns of Franklin and Highlands, Macon County, the N.C. Department of Transportation, and Sherby’s organization, the Southwestern Rural Planning Organization. Sherby hopes to wrap up the process in 12 to 18 months.

As if the prospect of planning a quarter century in advance isn’t daunting just on its own, there’s also the task of winning the community’s trust.

At a public meeting last Thursday, Macon County residents voiced their concerns, exhibiting eagerness to engage in the comprehensive plan as well as skepticism about whether their opinions would actually be taken into consideration.

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Some said the DOT turned a deaf ear to their protests against building a new road in the vicinity of Southwestern Community College and the Macon Library. The road was billed as improving access to the college and library, but in the process cuts through undeveloped land and spans the Little Tennessee River, all the while paralleling an existing road. Opponents lobbied for upgrading existing Siler Road instead of building a new one.

“I collected 500 signatures against the road,” said Sharon Taylor. “We were never given an opportunity to have any participation in the design and now it’s a 100-foot swath across the county ... without a bike lane.”

Sherby reassured the audience that things would be different this time around.

“The DOT is going through a transformation process, trying to be more accountable and engage the public more,” Sherby said. “They have not been sensitive to the public in the past, but I think they’re working toward that direction.”

Kay Coriell, president of the Friends of the Greenway, said officials from the DOT came in twice recently to ask for opinions on the bridge that will span the Little Tennessee and the greenway as part of the new road.

“It shows that they’re listening,” Coriell said, adding that whether they actually do anything after listening is anyone’s guess.

Throughout the meeting, Sherby repeatedly invited citizens to pick up his business card and give him a call or shoot him an e-mail to share their opinions about the plan. He has already collected more than 300 surveys on transportation issues from Macon County residents and will continue to accept those surveys until Oct. 1.

Macon County citizens have already filled out more than twice the total number of surveys submitted in Jackson County.

On the survey, respondents rate the importance of goals like safety, faster travel times, environmental protection, economic growth and alternative transportation. They also can indicate whether they support widening existing roads and building new ones versus improving the flow of traffic on existing roads — or both. Survey takers can also weigh in on the need for bike lanes, greenways and park-and-ride lots.

Citizens at Thursday’s meeting said they would like to see lanes widened to accommodate school buses, a commercial bus line into Asheville, more sidewalks, the creation of bike paths, and flexibility in design.

After gauging how local citizens want their transportation systems to evolve, Sherby and the steering committee will collect and analyze data. Next is formulating a vision statement, and the final step is coming up with a list of transportation projects to endorse.

Macon County’s comprehensive transportation plan will be the second in the western region of the state, following Jackson County’s lead. The Rural Transportation Planning Organization will eventually coordinate plans in Swain, Cherokee, Clay, and Graham counties as well.

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