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Wednesday, 02 January 2008 00:00

Competing road studies likely for N.C. 107

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The next year could play out as a battle of the traffic studies between the Department of Transportation and opponents to a new four-lane divided highway through Jackson County.

 

For years, opponents to the Southern Loop have called on the DOT to consider alternatives to a new highway. But DOT officials have insisted it is the only solution to traffic congestion on N.C. 107 — the main commercial drag and major commuter road in Jackson County.

Bending to public pressure to consider alternatives, the DOT has finally agreed to do a traffic study of N.C. 107 to see what it would take to fix the congestion without building a new highway.

But Southern Loop opponents aren’t satisfied. A group called the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance is questioning the DOT’s sincerity before the study has even begun. They fear the DOT will prejudice the study — namely by developing an alternative fix for N.C. 107 that is so distasteful the Southern Loop will look like the lesser of two evils.

“Every idea we have given them for an alternative has been constantly shot down,” said Harold Messer, an opponent to the Southern Loop. “The first thing they do is say it won’t work. To them the only thing that will work is the Southern Loop.”

Officials with DOT were out of the office over the past week and could not be reached for this story. But in a recent memo, Joel Setzer, head of the DOT in the region, portrayed the DOT as genuine in its exploration of alternatives. He said their study will look at “improving existing N.C. 107 as an alternative to the Southern Loop.”

The memo was circulated within the DOT and to town and county officials two weeks ago in response to an ad Smart Roads placed in the Sylva Herald newspaper. The ad — spanning two full pages — blasted the DOT and listed hundreds of people who could have their property taken depending on the ultimate route chosen for the Southern Loop. Setzer’s memo called the ad “misleading.”

Setzer also objected to the characterization of the DOT in the ad, namely a statement that DOT “continues to ignore reasonable alternatives.” Setzer said DOT has agreed to conduct a study specifically to identify alternatives to the Southern Loop.

“This study will look at N.C. 107 from U.S. 23 Business to Cullowhee to determine what can be improved so this highway will perform acceptably into the future,” Setzer wrote in the memo.

It sounds exactly like the kind of study Smart Roads wants, but not under the auspices of the DOT. Smart Roads wants an independent consultant who doesn’t answer to the DOT to do the study.

In Waynesville, a traffic consultant will soon begin a study of Russ Avenue, the main commercial corridor in that town. But the consultant won’t be answering to DOT during the project. Instead, DOT gave a $40,000 grant to the town, which in turn is hiring the traffic consultant of its choosing and setting its own parameters for the study. Roger Turner, a member of Smart Roads, wants an arrangement like that for Jackson County when it comes to the study of N.C. 107.

DOT is certainly not short on studies at the moment. In fact, there are two more in the works, both regarding the Southern Loop.

The DOT is currently in the planning phase for the Southern Loop. The planning phase is the last step before the DOT starts buying right of way. Several million has been allocated for the planning phase, which could take several years, however.

Messer said DOT should halt the planning phase for the Southern Loop until alternatives are explored.

“You have the cart so far ahead of the horse. Let your process have an opportunity to work. Then if the community sees a need for the road, put it back on,” Messer said.

But Setzer said that the planning phase for the Southern Loop won’t include just the Southern Loop.

“It will look at additional alternatives including a ‘no build’ or ‘do nothing’ alternative,” Setzer said in his memo.

The DOT is also supposedly working on yet a third study: a comprehensive transportation plan for the entire county. That study has been promised by the DOT for three years now, but hasn’t materialized. The study has stagnated due to staff changes in the DOT. The DOT is now on its third staff person assigned to the study. All of them worked out of Raleigh. There were long gaps between staff changes when no one was assigned to the study at all.

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