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Timeline for Mill Street lane reduction will depend on town budget

Timeline for Mill Street lane reduction will depend on town budget

Mill Street in Sylva will go from two lanes to one when a 2016 decision from the Sylva Board of Commissioners goes into effect. However, the timeline will depend on the town’s ability to fund the plan in the upcoming budget year.

In August, the town approved a resolution asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to close the left lane of Mill Street from its intersection with Main until it reaches Landis Street at the other end of downtown. The idea was that the closed lane could be converted into parking spaces, addressing concerns from Mill Street business owners that their shops lack sufficient customer parking. 

Initially, estimates put the cost of the project at $45,000 — a substantial sum for a small town with a bare-bones budget. However, a revised plan will nearly cut the cost in half, to about $23,000. 

Much of the savings comes from rethinking the type of traffic light that would need to be purchased. The town decided against purchasing traffic lights that change based on whether or not a waiting vehicle is detected, opting to go with more basic lights instead. 

Of the $23,000, about $13,000 has already been spent. The town has already purchased pedestrian flashers that will go in at the Landis Street intersection.  

The question, however, is what the board will do about sidewalks.

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Commissioners have repeatedly discussed the disjointed sidewalk situation on Mill Street and expressed the desire to do something about it. It would make sense to address that issue while the lane reduction is completed, but sidewalks can be expensive. Sidewalk upgrades are not part of the $23,000 estimate. 

“If they really want to look at sidewalk expenses, that’s going to be a bigger expense,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling. 

Budget talks for 2017-2018 are just beginning, with the town board’s first work session scheduled for Jan. 26. If the board comes up with funding for the project, then it could be completed sometime this year. But if the money isn’t available this year, then the timeline will grow longer. 

The town is still working out some other details in addition to the sidewalk question. The locations of loading zones and handicapped spaces still need to be pinned down, Dowling said. 

The idea to take Mill Street down to one lane came from a de facto experiment run after a downtown fire in 2014 resulted in one lane being temporarily closed and used for parking instead. Some in the downtown community felt that might be a good long term arrangement, saying that the lane closure didn’t appear to impact traffic that badly and their businesses benefited from having ample parking close by. 

To keep traffic flowing after the lane reduction is complete, the DOT plan calls for removal of the light at the Spring/Mill/Allen Street intersection. Traffic would no longer be allowed to turn onto Mill Street from Spring Street, and a stop sign would be installed at the intersection of Allen and Mill.

Support for the plan was not unanimous among town board members. The initial vote, held on Aug. 28, 2016, prevailed 3-1, with Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh opposing the action. The plan is “a pretty expensive fix to a problem that I don’t see as a problem,” she said in a follow-up interview. 

Commissioner Harold Hensley, who was absent at the Aug. 28 meeting, voiced opposition to at least one component of the plan during a work session last fall, saying that taking out the Spring Street light would “open up a keg of worms.”

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