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Influential DOT board member from Jackson steps down

Western mountain counties will have a new representative on the N.C. Department of Transportation board with the departure of long-time board member Conrad Burrell, who has stepped down from the powerful post after more than 11 years.

“I’m 77 years old; I’ve made a lot of trips to Raleigh; and I decided that I wanted to do something else and have a little more time,” said Burrell, who lives in Jackson County.

Burrell represented the 10 western most counties on the 19-member state DOT board, which historically decided what roads got built and where. Burrell’s seat on the board technically expired more than a year ago. He chose not to seek reappointment but has kept serving until a new appointment could be made by the governor, he said.

His replacement has now been chosen: Larry Kernea from Murphy. The 52-year-old works for the Murphy Electric Power Board. Kernea doesn’t claim to know much about DOT workings.

“I don’t know a lot about it yet. I’m as familiar with DOT as about anyone else in the western counties, but I’m excited about the opportunity,” Kernea said.

Kernea meets with the DOT staff for the 10 western counties next week.

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Burrell, who has also served as Jackson County commissioner and on the board of the Southwestern Community College, said he’s proud of the work that was accomplished during his tenure on the board.

“I really believe we made some good changes and that they were for the betterment of North Carolina,” Burrell said of the road projects undertaken.

Burrell had been a champion of the so-called Southern Loop, a controversial five-mile bypass around Sylva but is stepping down with its fate still in limbo.

“I wish I could have done more in Jackson County, but it didn’t work out that way,” Burrell said of the Southern Loop.

Citizens against the bypass formed a group called Smart Roads and have fought the project for years. Some government officials have also come out against it. Burrell was also criticized for advancing a new highway-caliber entrance to SCC while serving on both the college and DOT board simultaneously. Burrell said road projects in Jackson County have seemed more divisive than in other counties.

“Jackson County has been a little different,” Burrell said. “I don’t know why, but it has been. But, it doesn’t bother me. I was born and raised in Jackson County, so I understand the situation.”

Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10-western counties, has worked closely with Burrell for years.

“Mr. Burrell has served our area well,” Setzer said. “He’s been a true multimodal board member, meaning he supported more than just highways.”

Setzer pointed to sidewalks and Burrell’s support of transit services for Western Carolina University.

“He’s gone to bat for airports in Jackson County, Macon County and Cherokee County,” Setzer said. “He’s been a champion of streetscape projects as well.”


A new era for road-building decisions

When it comes to influence in state government, the DOT board is powerful — but not nearly as powerful as it once was.

Gov. Beverly Perdue in 2009 shifted the focus of the board from deciding which roads get built to setting overarching transportation policy. DOT employees now decide where and how roads are built based on specific data and criteria, rather than the subjective decisions or gut opinions of DOT board members.

“It is quantitatively based now,” said Sarah Graham, regional planner for the Southwest Development Commission.

The new process also gives local leaders and planning groups a voice.

“The governor’s order to depoliticize board of transportation is intended to give more decision-making authority to local governments,” said Graham.

Graham works with the Rural Planning Organization, a group made of the region’s mayors and county commissioner chairs. They are tasked each year with ranking what transportation projects are important locally.

Those rankings are plugged into a master formula, along with the rankings of DOT staff in the region. The formula also scores road projects on an assigned set of variables such as congestion or economic benefits. The projects with the most points make the top of the list.

When asked if the system is truly depoliticized, Graham responded that she doesn’t know, but she believes that the current system is a good one.

There have been questions about whether a new governor could simply throw out the new formula for ranking what roads get built. Graham said she believes, however, the changes made by Perdue will ultimately be legislated by the General Assembly.


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