An alternative solution for N.C. 107
By Carl Queen • Guest Columnist
As a long-time resident of Sylva — 48 years — I have had a front row seat to the evolution of N.C. 107 as it transgressed from a mostly rural two-lane highway into its current bustling five lanes. I moved to Sylva in 1970 to attend Western Carolina University where I spent the next four years pursuing both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Living in a garage apartment on the west side of Sylva, I traveled N.C. 107 to WCU almost daily for four years. Beginning at the intersection of U.S. 19 and N.C. 107, the road at that time known as Cullowhee Road ran through a mostly residential area with very few businesses along its path.
Upon completion of my educational pursuits, I was fortunate to be employed as an instructor at Southwestern Technical Institute, now Southwestern Community College. As a full-time year-round instructor, and continuing to live in the west and north ends of Sylva, I traveled the now congested N.C. 107 corridor for the next 27 years.
As the enrollment grew at both WCU and SCC, with the consolidation of Jackson County public schools and the population growth of both permanent and seasonal residents, N.C. 107 became highly congested between the intersection of U.S. 19 and Webster Road. Businesses began to spring up as private residences disappeared. In an effort to promote better traffic flow in this area, the Department of Transportation elected to convert this stretch of highway into three lanes with the center lane serving as a turning lane to allow motorists to access and exit the many businesses that were opening along the way. While this remedy aided in better traffic flow, the incidence of traffic accidents began to increase. I remember asking a local auto body shop owner his opinion on turning N.C. 107 into a three-lane road. He laughed and stated that “he loved three-lane roads.”
Before long that remedy proved to be very ineffective in handling the rapid increase in motor vehicle traffic and the decision was made to convert N.C. 107 into five lanes — two eastbound and two westbound and a center lane to serve as a turning and merging lane for motorists entering and exiting the many businesses now located on both sides of the highway. Because of inadequate space for a road of this size, the traffic lanes had to be as narrow as possible to accommodate five lanes. Storm drains located along the sides of the road were now in the path of the vehicle traffic and the location of the curbs left little room for error in lane control. Passing large trucks and buses requires precise driving and created a bit of anxiety with each and every encounter. During peak traffic times, getting into and out of the center lane is a very scary maneuver indeed. Obviously the time has come to once again address the traffic flow on this section of N.C. 107.
For some time now, I have been reading and hearing of possible solutions to address this ongoing dilemma, none of which in my opinion are practical and adequately address the current and future needs of that stretch of highway. DOT’s preliminary estimate of the disruption or relocation of 55 businesses to accommodate traffic concerns on that stretch of highway is both unnecessary and unacceptable. Where would these businesses go? The topography in that area leaves virtually no room for the existing business to move to. The estimated enormous $49.1 million cost of utilities and right-of-way is not necessary in my opinion. This is in addition to the estimated $21.5 million construction costs.
For what it’s worth, I offer the following suggestions of a viable solution to the problem while maintaining the status quo of most of the businesses and infrastructure as they currently exist. I came to this possible solution after studying the area on Google Maps and looking at the area on the ground. Google Maps affords you to have a bird’s-eye view of everything as it exists with a surprisingly high degree of accuracy. There appears to be adequate space to accomplish what I am proposing as a solution with minimum disruption to existing businesses and residences. I suggest the following:
- Construct a new road/street basically parallel to the existing five-lane N.C. 107 beginning in the area of the Family Dollar store and running east to tie into the existing four-lane divided highway leading from Webster Road to WCU. This road would run behind the existing businesses located on the right side going east on the current N.C. 107 and therefore would not require them to move and they could remain operative during and after the construction is completed. This road would be two lanes running one way (east) and include turning lanes, which would allow motorists to cross over to the existing N.C.107, which would become a one-way two- or three-lane road running west. It could also include turning lanes and a bicycle lane all in the existing roadway.
- Construction of this new one-way road would greatly improve traffic flow to Smoky Mountain High School, WCU, SCC and all areas on the east side of Sylva. Almost all the businesses currently located along 107 could remain as is. Utilities such as water, sewer, electrical, communication and sidewalks could remain as is. After the new eastbound road is built, the current five-lane 107 could be reconfigured into a westbound road with a bicycle lane as well, all in the roadway as it currently exists. Think of the money that would be saved as well as allowing most of the current businesses and utilities to remain untouched. This should greatly improve the driving safety as well since all traffic is traveling in the same direction. Connector streets could be constructed at stragetic locations which could also be one way allowing motorists to merge utilizing merge lanes into the traffic going in that direction.
- During the construction phase the existing five-lane N.C. 107 could be used as is with virtually no interruption of current traffic. After the eastbound road is finished, the westbound road should be able to be reconfigured as a one-way westbound road with minimal interruption to the motoring public.
- The little stream called Cope Creek which flows along the Sylva end of 107 could be landscaped and beautified with mini waterfalls and the proposed bicycle lane running beside it on the left side of the new road.
- The traffic light and intersection of U.S. 19 and N.C. 107 could be greatly improved to further promote eastbound traffic to flow more efficiently without long wait times since no left turns could be made at that spot. Eastbound traffic would merge onto the new road behind Kel Save Drugs. Westbound traffic would merge unimpeded onto the existing street entering downtown Sylva.
If cost, safety and greatly improved traffic flow are the objectives, I feel these suggestions offer a viable solution which address current and future traffic concerns while saving our business community, which is the lifeblood of our town.