A windshield tour of the new 107
Years in the making, design options for a new N.C. 107 in Sylva were recently unveiled by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
The ball is now in the public’s court to weigh in on what they want. Intersection patterns, sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaping plans will make or break how the redesign is executed. Here’s a guide to the top features and decision points along N.C. 107.
Top talking points: N.C. 107 redesign
• What: A redesign of the five-lane commercial drag in Sylva that replaces the middle turn lane with islands and medians, improves visual appeal and reduces congestion, plus an aesthetic makeover of the West Main approach to downtown.
• Where: Four-mile section of N.C. 107 from town all the way out past Ingles, plus one-third mile of the Old Asheville Highway from McDonald’s to the intersection with 107. Lastly, a short section of West Main heading toward downtown Sylva as far as the fire department (would only be four lanes).
• How much: $35.5 million, including $14.6 million in right-of-way and utilities, $18.6 million in construction and $2 million in design.
• Traffic: 32,400 vehicle trips per day on peak days
Amid a sea of complicated engineering maps, one idyllic image in particular caught the public’s eye when the 107 redesign was unveiled by the DOT two weeks ago: a lush, green boulevard with a grassy median, cyclists tooling along with the cars and pedestrians strolling a shady, tree-lined sidewalk.
But the picture was hypothetical, and only a few stretches of the new 107 might actually look like this.
“It is not indicative of what would be out here on 107,” said Brian Burch, DOT project development engineer based in Sylva.
Roughly half the length of 107, the median would be concrete. Around every intersection and U-turn, the median tapers down to allow for a turn lane. The median becomes concrete when it starts tapering, and given all the intersections, the median is in one of these concrete phases half the time.
The trees along the side of the road could be hit or miss, as well.
“We wouldn’t always have enough width to do a tree planting,” Burch said. “This is a heavily commercialized area, so depending on how much room we have beyond the sidewalks, that determines how much plantings and aesthetic improvements we can do.”
And there might not be enough money to plant trees the length of the whole project anyway. DOT’s policy caps landscaping to 0.75 percent of the total construction cost — in 107’s case, that comes out to roughly $140,000 to spend on trees, bushes, ornamental grasses and flowers along the 4.5-mile project.
If the community wants more landscaping than the budget allows, local government must come up with the money itself, Burch said.
Some local residents are already talking about ways to make that happen.
“Maybe we can start a community effort or get a community grant,” said Jeanette Evans. “The drawing looks beautiful but it won’t be effective if we don’t do it right.”
So long middle turn lane
The frustrating middle turn lane will be torn up and replaced with medians and islands under every option the DOT shared.
“I am pretty excited they all had the boulevard concept,” said Jeanette Evans, a long-time community voice in transportation planning in Jackson County.
For 15 years, Smart Roads advocates like Evans have preached the virtues of the boulevard design on 107, but axing the middle turn lane was a new-fangled idea met with skepticism.
At first blush, it seems inconvenient. Drivers hankering for a burger, donut or taco on the other side of the road won’t be able to shoulder their way across lanes of oncoming traffic anymore. They’ll have to overshoot their mark, do a U-turn and double back.
Once they have their fries and Coke in hand, they’ll be forced to turn right even if they want to go left, head in the wrong direction for a spell, then make yet another U-turn.
But Michael Buchanan, who owns commercial property on 107, thinks a median will ultimately be beneficial rather than detrimental.
“From what I’ve read, it tends to help business,” said Buchanan.
His brother, Johnny Buchanan, said the U-turn system couldn’t be any worse than the current waiting game.
“It would be worth it to me. Sometimes I have to sit there for five minutes to turn left and get on the road,” Buchanan said. “It is dangerous to cut across anyway.”
A marked increase in accidents on 107 has been attributed to the middle turn lane.
“It’s a suicide lane now,” said Harold Hensley, a Sylva town board member whose brother was rear-ended on 107.
Local resident Jim Montsinger relayed a staggering statistic among the seven homes in his subdivision off 107.
“Four of us have had accidents at that intersection and all of our cars were totaled,” said Montsinger.
Official data backs up the rampant anecdotes.
“The crash average is much higher than any other road in Jackson County. Essentially one a week on this road, mostly rear-ends and side swipes,” said Brian Burch, DOT project development engineer based in Sylva.
Jack Debnam, a former county commissioner and statewide DOT board member, has long favored redesigning 107 sans middle turn lane.
“A lot of it is common sense,” Debnam said.
There is a con, however.
“It takes some time to get folks used to it,” said Mark Reese, a congestion management expert with DOT.
But it’s worth it, he said.
“There’s a component of having a sense of place along the corridor and having a more aesthetic environment, as well as safer and more efficient traffic flow,” Reese said.
To super street, or not to super street?
Both options for a 107 redesign forsake the middle turn lane for a median, differing only by degree.
One option called a “super street” goes all in with limiting left turns — even cutting out left turns at some major intersections and side streets.
We checked in with the DOT’s super street expert and congestion management brain trust Mike Reese to explain the concept.
A super street has shorter stoplights and fewer of them. How? By getting left turns out of the mix at intersections, you don’t have to wait for all the side streets to cycle through the green left-turn arrow.
“All that traffic is stopped with red lights while it waits for all the other movements to occur,” Reese said. “Everyone is fighting for that one small amount of signal time. Waits are compounded because you have to have a pause to clear the intersection as you go from one signal phase to another.”
Get caught on the yellow? It can take 2 to 3 minutes before your light turns green again.
“Two-thirds of the time, thru traffic is stopped to give green time for all the other movements to occur. Thru traffic on the main street is only moving roughly 20 minutes out of every hour,” Reese said.
But with a super street, your green time on the main road doubles. And that’s how to get 107 moving, Reese said.
“Without having to add any lanes,” Reese said. In fact, adding lanes wouldn’t really help anyway, because it’s the stoplight time that turns 107 into an accordion.
Reese has spoken about super streets and led congestion management workshops for other DOTs all over the country. But the hardest sell can be convincing locals to try something different.
“I get called crazy. People ask ‘Where did you get this idea? Why are you making me turn right when I want to turn left? This is out of my way,’” Reese said. “When I go back out and hear from the people after the project has gone on the ground, they say ‘You know what, it works.’”
While there are still only a few super street conversions in the state, Reese doesn’t see it as an experiment. He has no doubt it would work.
“Teaching the public how to drive these innovations is a key part,” Reese said.
And that’s where some are skeptical of the full-on super street design.
“The select few I talked to at the public meeting agreed something had to be done, but most preferred the option that was most familiar to them,” said Brian Burch, DOT engineer in Sylva. “It was more of a comfort level of ‘We know how that operates. We have seen that.’ The conventional design is not as efficient but it is the one that is most familiar to people.”
An unknown variable is how many businesses will be wiped out by the wider road footprint. The short answer is “not very many.” The long answer: it’s too soon to know which ones for sure.
Between wider vehicle lanes, curb and gutter, bike accommodations, sidewalks and a planting buffer, the new 107 will clock in at 110 feet wide — 10 to 30 feet wider than the existing right-of-way.
The final design will be refined over the coming year, and right-of-way can be shifted to one side of the road or the other to preserve as many businesses as possible.
West Main gateway
The 107 makeover will also give Sylva a facelift.
“It’s going to improve the feel and the aesthetic of Sylva. That’s a big part of it,” said Jack Debnam, a former county commissioner who sits on the statewide DOT board.
The redesign will extend down West Main into downtown Sylva as far as the fire station. It will only be four lanes along here, like it is now, but with the addition of sidewalks, spruced up curb-and-gutter and hopefully landscaping. But Sylva town board member Greg McPherson hopes to seize the opportunity.
“That’s a gateway into town. In terms of economic development that entry way needs to be something that aesthetically shines,” McPherson said at a meeting between the DOT and local leaders two weeks ago. “I would like to throw out the idea of some aesthetic improvements along that corridor.”
For example, instead of a utilitarian concrete bridge over Scott’s Creek — which is getting replaced anyway — how about some stacked stone, McPherson said.
It’s doable, but Sylva would have to pay for it, replied DOT engineer Brian Burch.
“That is considered a betterment and it would be a pass-along cost,” Burch said.
Tighten it up
While the median down 107 will stop left turns across oncoming traffic, there is still an inordinate number of parking lot entrances. Even when limited to right turns in and out of parking lots, the sheer volume breaks up the road’s continuity.
Sarah Thompson, director of the Southwestern Regional Commission, wonders whether some of those duplicate curb-cuts could be eliminated.
“It creates constant stops to have a car slowing down to make a 90-egree right turn and the next car slowing down to use the driveway 20 more feet down the road. It seems like an excessive amount of turning options,” Thompson said during a Q&A session with DOT officials. “Is that a town decision or a DOT decision if it might make sense to make that just one driveway?”
The DOT officials replied that some duplicate curb cuts could be closed off, but didn’t say how aggressive they would be in doing so. Also, DOT can’t force adjacent businesses to combine parking lots and share a driveway onto 107 instead of each having their own. That would be up to town land-use planning ordinances.
Bike lane or multi-use path
The redesign posed two options for bikes: an extra-wide outside lane that would give bikers some birth to share the lane with cars or a designated and striped bike lane.
But several members of the public wanted door number three instead. Instead of a bike lane on the road, they want wider sidewalks to serve as a multi-use path for both bikes and pedestrians.
“It is only your really hard-core bikers that would feel comfortable riding a bike even with a bike lane with that much traffic,” said Sarah Thompson with the Southwestern Commission.
“I wouldn’t want my child so close to traffic going 35 miles per hour,” agreed Christina Smith, a mom who came out to see the plans.
DOT is willing to pay for a 5-foot bike lane. And DOT is willing to pay for a 5-foot sidewalk.
So what about combining those two into a single 10-foot-wide multi-use path, Thompson asked.
“It is a creative solution given our restraints. Would DOT be amenable to paying for that?” Thompson asked.
Unfortunately, the answer was no, at least for now.
Ironically, combining the 5-foot bike lane with the 5-foot sidewalk to create a single multi-use path would be cheaper for the DOT. Getting rid of the bike lanes would make the road 10 feet narrower, and while the sidewalks would be wider, sidewalks are cheaper to build than bona fide roadway. And there is less ongoing cost from asphalt paving.
“However, we are not by policy allowed to make those trade-offs,” said Brian Burch, DOT project development engineer based in Sylva. “The policy would have to be revised to allow those decisions to be made.”
Burch said if enough people ask for a multi-use path that combines the sidewalk and bike lane widths, it could make the case for a policy change.
“If we see there are issues outside the policy, we could go to Raleigh and say ‘Here’s where our policy prevents us from doing something the local community and local government desires.’ Then that would lead to a discussion of whether the policy needs to be changed,” Burch said.
Pedestrian paradise at a cost
The 107 redesign calls for 5-foot sidewalks on both sides of the road, but getting there will require the town of Sylva to pitch in some dough.
Everywhere there are existing sidewalks, DOT will replace them. But in sections where there’s no sidewalk currently, the town has to foot 20 percent of the cost of sidewalk construction.
The various pass-along costs to the town of Sylva will force town leaders to make tough choices. A prettier bridge over Scott’s Creek, continuous sidewalks, full-scale landscaping, a multi-use path in lieu of bike lanes — all of these are non-standard in the DOT’s book and thus Sylva would have to pay for them.
Jason Kimenker, a long-time Smart Roads advocate, said the community needed to raise its voice and keep asking to get the road it wants.
“It’s not acceptable to require the town of Sylva to put that kind of money in,” Kimenker said. “If they are calling them additives or accouterments or whatever, we aren’t asking for anything that isn’t part of transportation.”
This is no time to settle, Kimenker said. He suggested the community advocate to raise the money to get what it wants if it has to.
Another thing missing from the plan was an on-street bus stop. Given WCU’s growth, a bus from Cullowhee to Sylva isn’t necessarily a long shot by the year 2030.
“It would be nice to have a place where a public transit vehicle could pull off and safely load and unload passengers,” said Sylva town board member Greg McPherson.