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Saturday, 12 February 2011 16:11

Southern Loop: County leaders to weigh in on controversial project

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Jackson County commissioners have been asked to select their top six road priorities for consideration by the state Department of Transportation, a decision that could help decide whether a controversial bypass around Sylva is ever built.

Division 14, a 10-county region of the transportation department, plans to use the information to help it decide which projects should be included a bigger to-do list: A top 25 for the entire division. These projects, in turn, eventually must vie for funding statewide.

The list compiled by the county’s board of commissioner is likely to figure heavily in whether the Southern Loop moves forward. The Southern Loop would be a new major highway that would bisect Jackson County, with the intention of diverting traffic from N.C. 107.

Opponents to the Southern Loop have questioned the need and scope of the project, and whether the transportation department has “fast-tracked” the new highway over public wishes to the contrary.

Funding already has been secured for an environmental study, Julia Merchant, transportation department spokeswoman, confirmed today (Friday).

“(But) the environmental planning has been placed on hold as the department waits to see the outcomes of the feasibility study to improve N.C. 107 and receive the county's list of transportation priorities to determine how the county would like to move forward,” Merchant wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News.

Asked how important commissioners’ decision would figure, she replied:

“In terms of the state DOT’s ranking system, the priorities set by a county or region certainly send a message and may give a project more points. However, each project is weighed and ranked on the value it would add to the transportation system, and the priorities set locally and regionally are just one factor in that decision process. Basically, there’s no rule saying the state will automatically pick up a region’s top priorities. That said, local and regional input is still very important to the state’s prioritization process, and that’s why we have numerous channels for gathering such input.

“Conversely, a project could theoretically end up on our Work Program even if a local or regional authority does not include a project on its list of priorities. However, it would be very unusual that a project would meet criteria to qualify as a priority on DOT’s list if it wasn’t also supported locally and regionally.”

For more on this issue, read next Wednesday’s print and online edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

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