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Year of study yields little change for N.C. 107 project

The intersection of N.C. 107 and U.S. 23 is one of the more problematic areas along the congested road. Holly Kays photo The intersection of N.C. 107 and U.S. 23 is one of the more problematic areas along the congested road. Holly Kays photo

After putting nearly 300 hours and just short of a year toward an effort to develop an alternative vision for the N.C. 107 project in Sylva, the Asheville Design Center presented its findings to the Sylva Board of Commissioners Thursday, July 11. 

“I would love to say at this point that that resulted in a solution that will make everyone happy, but unfortunately this is a transportation project, and those are rare,” said Chris Joyell, executive director of the ADC. 

The N.C. 107 project has been on ADC’s radar since June 2018, when the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance contacted the organization about the possibility of getting involved with what has proven to be a controversial and difficult process. 

In August 2018, the Sylva town board agreed to accept the ADC’s offer of pro bono design services, and the nonprofit began its process in November. The goal was to meet with the public and representatives from entities spanning government, business and utility interests to come up with innovative solutions that would sidestep some of the project’s expected impacts. 

The N.C. 107 plan has drawn criticism ever since preliminary plans were released last year, but traffic along the corridor has been debated for decades before that. The discussion began in the 1990s, when DOT was considering a bypass connecting Cullowhee to U.S. 74. In 2002, the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance formed in response to that plan, decrying the astronomical expense, environmental damage and harm to Sylva’s downtown economy that it said the bypass would cause. The DOT eventually axed its bypass plans and began looking to improve existing roads instead — namely, N.C. 107. 

However, the new proposal hasn’t proven any more popular than the old one. According to preliminary plans released in April 2018, the road makeover would force roughly one-sixth of Sylva’s business community to relocate. With little available commercial property in town, it’s likely that many of the 54 businesses on the current relocation list would not reopen in Sylva — especially since state relocation funds can be spent anywhere within a 50-mile radius of the initial site. 

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After meetings with city staff, the N.C. Department of Transportation, business and property owners, utilities, Smart Roads members and the public, the ADC concluded that the DOT’s proposed plan might be as good as it gets. 

“I wish we were able to uncover a silver bullet, but unfortunately even with all the hours we spent on this thing we’re resigned to the fact that the design that is on the table is the alignment that is feasible and most likely to occur,” said Joyell. 

Rather than arriving at an entirely new vision for N.C. 107, the ADC team instead decided to “focus on the edges” in order to make the existing proposal as good as possible.

Because the design places bike lanes where buffers would be required anyway, little right-of-way would be saved by axing them, said Joyell. But adding a buffer between the bike and car lanes would result in the bike lanes being used more often and could be achieved by narrowing the car lanes from 12 to 11 feet, thus preventing the need to acquire more right-of-way to provide the bike buffers. 

Similarly, he said, the town should urge the DOT to make an exception to its policy against planting street trees on roads with speed limits of 35 or more miles per hour so that the new sidewalk along 107 could get some shade, increasing its usefulness to the public. 

Joyell also said the ADC’s written report will have a whole set of recommendations for key intersections such as the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 intersection and the N.C. 107/Webster Road intersection, aimed at making those areas safer for cyclists and pedestrians. 

The recommendations will also rework the angles of road, with the goal of decreasing property loss. While the ADC can’t be in the business of recommending that one property be preserved and another sacrificed, said Joyell, the team is recommending that the DOT maintain flexibility in its design so that it can better work within the wishes of property owners. If one property owner is a willing seller while another is not, he said, the DOT should leave the door open to tweak its design to favor property acquisitions from willing sellers. 

The ADC is working on some final revisions to its official report, which it plans to present to the town by the end of the month. 

Meanwhile, the town is still waiting to receive the DOT’s updated plans for the project. While the preliminary plans released last year were considered 25 percent complete, the upcoming version will be considered 65 percent complete and give a more accurate picture of which businesses might need to leave and which will probably get to stay. 

According to Joshua Deyton, project lead for the DOT, the 65 percent plans will be released in August. The plans had previously been expected to be complete in March, with the date later moved back to June. 

However, said Deyton, the project is still on schedule. The plans are complete to the 65 percent point except for utilities, and the project team is currently coordinating with utilities to get that portion completed. Right-of-way acquisition will begin in January 2020, and the project is scheduled to let to contract in December 2022. The construction schedule will not be set until the project is advertised for contract, said Deyton, but projects this size typically take three to four years to complete. 

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