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With a redesign of N.C. 107 officially in the works, the controversial Southern Loop appears to be toast.

op frI’m not sure it represents a new philosophy or perhaps is just an acknowledgement of reality, but the decision by the state Department of Transportation to hold off on any further planning for the massive Southern Loop project in Jackson County was certainly welcome news.

It was September 2001 when the controversy over this proposed bypass erupted in Jackson County and made its first appearance in the pages of The Smoky Mountain News. Malcom MacNeil, the former owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, was circulating a petition from the very outset that garnered more than 500 signatures to get the state to back off the project.

fr hwy107A decade-long tug-of-war over what to do about Sylva’s congested commercial strip of N.C. 107 took an unexpected turn last week.

With its fast-food restaurants, box stores, gas stations and occasional backups of traffic, there’s not much that can be described as quaint about N.C. 107 in Sylva.

Except, perhaps, for Bryson’s Farm Supply, where Randy Hooper and wife, Debbie, sell such items as feed and seeds, hoes, bee-hive frames, and other rural must-haves to local farmers and gardeners.

Hooper, on this day — as always — characteristically attired in bib overalls, has worked at Bryson’s Farm Supply since the late 1970s. By then, he said, the highway was already four lanes. But Debbie remembers the road being just two lanes when helping her father build the store.

Today, this main business drag of N.C. 107 is five lanes. And, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation, it needs to be wider still to accommodate future traffic projections — a plan that in fact could lead to the state potentially paving right over this Jackson County landmark, as well as forcing many other “relocations” along the road.

The Hoopers have recently added a line of organic and naturally grown foods to their traditional feed and seed selection at Bryson’s Farm Supply. They are tapping into the burgeoning Jackson County segment of residents who frequent the farmers market, and who often drive more than an hour to Asheville to shop at whole-foods oriented grocery stores such as Earth Fare and Greenlife Grocery.

But their main clientele remains older and more traditional, and the traffic issues on N.C. 107 have created some problems for Bryson’s Farm Supply. While this might make big-city move-ins incredulous, the number of cars now using this highway is flat-out frightening to many of an older generation, Hooper said.

“What helped us out was about two or three years ago, a red light was put in,” Hooper said as he nodded toward the stoplight positioned on the busy highway directly in front of his store. “A lot of the older people were intimidated on this road.”

Jackson County resident Sara Hatton, busy shopping at Bryson’s Farm Supply, remembers when N.C. 107 was a two-lane road.

“When we got Wal-Mart in, that’s when it got really hectic,” Hatton said, adding that she does not, however, believe the transportation department needs to build a bypass to ease congestion as the agency also proposed.

Brother and sister Larry Crawford and Ruth Shuler, both avid members of the Jackson County Genealogical Society, remember further back than most — they can easily picture the days when there was just one small general store along this now busy stretch of highway.

“It was in Lovesfield,” Crawford said, and then explained that Lovesfield is after Love Hill. And that would be at the stop sign to Wal-Mart, which is across the highway from the Love Family Cemetery, which is behind Sonic Drive In — you always can count on genealogical folks to know their local place names, and history.

“The only (other) commercial development was the pole yard,” Shuler, who, like her brother, is intimately familiar with Jackson County’s roads from years of school bus driving.

The pole yard, she said, was located about where Cody’s Express Hot Spot is found at the intersection of N.C. 107 and Cope Creek Road. It was simply a place where poles — perhaps the phone company’s, Shuler isn’t sure — were cached.

Other than that, the area that now serves as the busiest section of Sylva was once simply a residential section of town, she said.

That’s hard to believe these days, given the hot debate about what best to do about N.C. 107.

There’s a novel solution afoot for traffic woes on Sylva’s commercial thoroughfare: widen the road so much it obliterates most of the businesses.

“You certainly wouldn’t have a traffic problem on 107 if you took out 80 businesses,” said Sarah Graham, a community transportation planner with the Southwestern Development Commission.

Yet that’s the top option in a study of how to fix N.C. 107 recently completed by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Of course, bulldozing businesses wasn’t the goal, but rather an accidental side-effect of all the lanes along with a 30-foot medians the DOT says will be needed one day to allay congestion.

The massive widening contained in the DOT’s study has been summarily rejected by elected leaders in Sylva, and at the county level.

“Nobody liked it,” Graham said.

Joel Setzer, head of the DOT Division for the 10-western counties, can understand why. It’s not exactly the vision people in the community had in mind, Setzer said, citing comments he heard at a public input meeting during the feasibility study.

“Folks said they wanted to see 107 operate more as a Main Street commercial district and be improved within the existing footprint,” Setzer said.

But 107 also has to move a high volume of traffic.

“For it to be both will be a difficult thing to pull off,” Setzer said.

In hopes of finding a middle ground, Graham has applied for a grant to hire an independent consultant to do a new feasibility study. Graham believes a solution for 107 is within reach if the community thinks outside the box.

“We’ve all been to areas with roads similar to 107 but that function better, look nicer, are safer to drive on, but are equally as full of businesses,” Graham said.

It will take a whole bag of tricks to solve 107 traffic woes, she said, ticking off a list of catch phrases common in traffic planning circles: access management, traffic calming, intersection redesigns, turning nodes, rear-access drives and shared entrances.

“We might just need to look at it one block at a time and look at fixes that are real specific to each area and what it can handle,” Graham said.

Graham hopes a do-over of the DOT’s feasibility study will come up with such suggestions.

Setzer said these micro-fixes might work for a while, but would be temporary Band-Aids.

“We can do a little bit here and a little bit there,” Setzer said. But “after some time we are going to run out of tricks.”

Jason Kiminker, a Sylva businessman and advocate with the Smart Roads Alliance, disagreed.

“I think the correct solution is going to be surgery. A very precise surgery. Not a bomb that is dropped on the road,” Kiminker said.

Setzer countered that the feasibility study is far from a final road plan.

“If this project goes into design, we would be looking at finding ways to avoid these impacts,” Setzer said.

Setzer said there is wiggle room in the lane width and the width of the median, which is a whopping 30-feet in the feasibility study.

But the community also has to figure out how much congestion they are willing to tolerate.

“Is congestion out there today an acceptable level? Can we live with more or do we need less congestion?” Setzer said.

Kiminker questions the so-called congestion, and considers the future traffic estimates predicted by DOT a flawed premise.

“They can forecast whatever they want then say 107 won’t be able to carry it,” Kiminker said.

 

What about the bypass?

Percolating at the edge of the debate over 107 is the looming question of whether to build a new bypass around the commercial stretch. Once known as the Southern Loop and now deemed the 107 Connector, the bypass would plow virgin countryside to skirt the business district, giving through commuters a direct route to U.S. 23-74.

Opponents to the bypass clamored for the DOT to instead fix 107 traffic congestion without building a new road.

County commissioners and town board members also called for examining fixes to 107 first.

So the DOT sanctioned the feasibility study, and like Setzer predicted, it concluded 107 would have to be much, much wider to handle future traffic on its own, without the aid of a bypass.

“I intuitively knew it would be very disruptive but I wanted to have people take a professional look at it,” Setzer said. “Everybody said fix 107, but the devil is always in the details as to what it would take to fix 107.”

Graham said even with a bypass, however, future 107 traffic woes won’t be resolved.

“The studies show the connector will relieve some traffic on 107 but not enough to solve our problems,” Graham said.

Setzer agreed.

“I have been an advocate for both projects. Fixing 107 and also offering an alternative to 107,” Setzer said.

Kiminker fears the DOT is using fear mongering to steer the public toward supporting a bypass.

“They are showing you all the worst possible scenarios,” Kiminker said of the feasibility study.

Kiminker said there are “much more palatable, much less expensive and more low impact” options, but the DOT had an ulterior motive.

“The entire point of the study was not to see how 107 was improved, it was about showing that the connector was needed,” Kiminker said. “We haven’t been fooled — this feasibility study can be shelved in the garbage can where it deserves to go.”

Setzer said the public wanted a feasibility study, and that’s what they got. He can’t help the findings.

“We had input from the general public, we had input from advocacy groups and input from local government that said they would like us to look and see at fixing 107 before relieving congestion through other means,” Setzer said.

Setzer welcomes a second feasibility study by an independent firm should the grant come through, as well as the continued dialogue it is bound to bring about.

Of course, talk is cheap. The price tag for the full-blown widening outlined in the DOT’s feasibility study is $103 million. And it’s nowhere on the horizon, at least according to the DOT’s long-range road building list.

Nonetheless, it’s not a moment to soon to start crafting a design the community can get behind, Graham said.

“At least the town and county would be armed with a plan so as funds came available to do some road improvements they would have defined what their problems were and solutions were on more of a micro level,” Graham said.

If given a blank canvas, no road engineer today would build a road that looks or functions like 107. Constraints posed by commercial development flanking the corridor certainly makes it harder to fix, she said.

“So it is working backwards a little bit, but there is no time like the present. I don’t think it is hopeless,” Graham said.

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.

Are you ready to rumble? Because here we go again: The great debate in Jackson County on whether traffic congestion along N.C. 107 in Sylva should be fixed, and if so — how — is back.

Since the summer of 2008, the state Department of Transportation has conducted separate traffic studies, each intended to explore different fixes to the same problem.

The preliminary results of one of those studies is about to go public: potential redesigns of N.C. 107, Sylva’s major traffic corridor, which takes in the primary portion of the county that is experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, state DOT officials will hold what’s being dubbed an “informal meeting” in Sylva. They intend to publicly layout what they claim must be done if N.C. 107 is truly going to be fixed.

There are six concepts on the table. Three of those concepts would include building an additional road, the controversial Southern Loop, since renamed the friendlier-sounding (and the transportation department claims, more accurate) “N.C. 107 connector.”

 

‘Here it is’

The connector, as originally conceived, would blaze a new road through the mountains. Five miles of construction destroying homes, farmland, and taking in streams and forests — a proposal, that on the face of it, is simply too destructive for serious contemplation by many in the county, including those who stand to lose their homes.

Opponents won a small battle when the transportation department broadened its language describing the N.C. 107 connector as a “multi-lane” freeway to include the possibility of a smaller, two-lane road, at least for the purpose of study.

Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the group that acted as the brake on the transportation department’s original plans for a multi-lane bypass, has started revving its engines.

The citizen-action group has pretty much lain dormant for the past few years. But this week it held an organizational meeting at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Members are promising to once again bring accountability to the process, and to insist on the inclusion of a wide array of community voices before any decisions are made.

“DOT has forgotten we’re paying attention,” said Jason Kimenker between serving up cups of lightly curried butternut squash soup to his lunch customers at the Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro, smack dab beside the section of N.C. 107 that is being eyed for improvements. “We have simply been waiting to find out what they were going to do. And, here it is.”

But whether Smart Roads can inspire hundreds of Jackson County residents to participate in what’s often a tedious and mystifyingly complex process — as it once did — remains to be proven. The first test comes next week, at the transportation department’s information session.

 

Meeting is a response to public pressure

Joel Setzer doesn’t actually have horns and a tail, though to hear some critics of the transportation department, that might come as something of a surprise.

In reality, Setzer is a polite, well-spoken Jackson County native who made good and became the very top dog for the 14th Division of the state Department of Transportation. That means he’s division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Jackson County and encompasses the westernmost tip of North Carolina. Today, Setzer lives on the land he was raised on, commuting a few miles each day from Cullowhee via N.C. 107 to his tidy office — replete with pictures of family members and trout — located in the division’s headquarters near Webster.

“This, in essence, is to help answer the question — ‘Can you fix 107?’” he said of the upcoming meeting.

What happened, Setzer said, is the transportation department really listened. No, really, he said, truly they did.

They heard residents (lots of them, hundreds of them at a time at some points), keep asking whether another road (N.C. 107 connector) was necessary. There were questions about traffic counts, about politics versus need, about desires to build roads positioned against a more environmentally friendlier concept of working in the existing footprint.

That led to the information session (not a public hearing) to share what is known at this point. This, Setzer said, is not required of the transportation department — but the project is controversial, and there have been a lot of questions raised.

The central, nagging question? Whether the transportation department is really doing what the community wants in considering a connector, or by making significant improvements to N.C. 107. Or, are these men and women primed to build roads when a few cars back up on the highway, simply shoving their pet projects down the throats of a reluctant citizenry, all the while egged on by a shadowy yet powerful coalition of would-be developers?

Connecting a network of side roads and linking rural routes to relieve pressure on N.C. 107 is the solution the Smart Roads group advocated when it was active. That option was not included in this study.

 

 

What’s on the table?

Here’s what’s being dubbed the six “concepts.” They make only limited sense without accompanying illustrations and maps and explanations from engineers. Those will be forthcoming, Setzer promised, at the information meeting:

• Concept 1 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with no N.C. 107 connector, approximately 6.2-miles long.

• Concept 2 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 6.2 miles long.

• Concept 3 — Superstreet concept (think Cope Creek, along U.S. 23/74, where turnout lanes are now) with access management/non-traditional intersections and no N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 4 — Superstreet concept with access management/non-traditional intersections and with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 5 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with no N.C. 107 connector.

• Concept 6 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with the N.C. 107 connector in place.

Right off the bat, it is critical to understand that each of these six concepts were drafted using a “D” level of service: “A” would represent the best operating conditions; “F” the worst. “D” is generally considered acceptable in urban areas, the transportation department noted in a document outlining the concepts for N.C. 107.

Setzer acknowledged that even the level of service used as the baseline in drafting these concepts is arguable. And, surely, will be argued.

One additional, very important point: Setzer said he must know what “the county’s vision” is today. Build, don’t build; improve, don’t improve — “people are going to have to say, ‘What is an acceptable level of service?’” Setzer said.

“There needs to be a community discussion on what it would take to fix 107 … and I don’t think you can proceed without knowing where the duly elected officials stand. We need to know what the vision is. Without that, we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.”

 

What Smart Roads advocates want

If you want to get involved, it pays to know what you are getting involved in. Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance promotes these alternatives:

• Expand and connect existing roads to accommodate present and future traffic.

• Implement access management concepts and other “traffic calming” solutions for N.C. 107.

• Encourage walkable communities, making it easy for people to get where they need to go without driving.

• Build and expand bike lanes and support the Jackson County Greenway plan.

• Develop public transportation and utilize pre-existing railroad lines.

• Advocate for DOT to use earmarked funds for transportation alternatives.

• Preserve the Tuckasegee River corridor for public use.

Interested? Then learn more at http://wnc.us/smartroads.

 

Understanding N.C. 107

N.C. 107 is the only major north-south transportation route in Jackson County, and serves as a “collector” for numerous secondary roads, many of which are dead-end roads that have no “connectivity.” It joins Sylva in the north with Cashiers in the south, traveling through Webster, Cullowhee and Tuckasegee in between.

There is dense commercial development along U.S. 23 Business and N.C. 107 between U.S. 23-74 and N.C. 116. About 95 driveways intersect this 3.3-mile roadway segment. Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary School, Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University are located along, or near, N.C. 107.

N.C. 107 is a five-lane, curb-and-gutter roadway with narrow 10-foot wide travel lanes from U.S. 23 Business to approximately 1,000 feet south of Fairview Road. From there, N.C. 107 transitions to a four-lane, median-divided facility. Under 2008 conditions, the five-lane section is at, or over, its traffic-carrying capacity during peak traveling hours. By 2035, the entire five-lane section will be operating over capacity.

SOURCE: N.C. Department of Transportation

 

Get Involved

WHAT: Informational meeting on fixing traffic problems on N.C. 107 in Sylva.

WHERE: Balsam Center (Myers Auditorium lobby), Jackson County campus of Southwestern Community College, 447 College Road in Sylva.

WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 5-7 p.m.

WHY: To share six “concepts” that could fix perceived traffic-flow issues.

WHO: Sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.

Jackson County commissioners were split over whether to endorse the construction of a controversial new highway outside of Sylva when the issue came up for a vote at a county meeting Monday.

The highway was included on a wishlist being sent to the N.C. Department of Transportation to guide future road projects in Jackson County. Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to sign off on the list, which was developed over the past year by a citizen-driven transportation task force.

The task force never formally endorsed the transportation plan that bears their name. The plan includes the 107 Connector, formerly known as the Southern Loop. The proposed road, which is already in the planning stages by DOT, would bypass the busy commercial corridor of N.C. 107, funneling traffic from the Cullowhee area directly to U.S. 23-74 north of Sylva.

Chairman Brian McMahan, who voted to approve the plan, explained that the vote should not be seen as an endorsement of the proposed 107 Connector.

“I want to make note that if we approve this plan, it does not mean we have approved or endorsed the construction of a new highway,” McMahan said.

The board approved the transportation plan with the caveat that they could withdraw their support for the plan following an environmental impact study of the new highway.

McMahan said the board wanted the chance to see the findings of ongoing N.C. Department of Transportation studies of traffic patterns and congestion on N.C. 107, the main commercial artery through Sylva and commuter route in the county.

“It’s just saying we’re going to continue the planning process, continue gathering the data and await eagerly the DOT to present its findings,” McMahan said.

The comprehensive transportation plan includes a long list of potential projects that could create a freer flow of traffic patterns in Jackson County. The Jackson County Transportation Task Force, a group made up of residents, business people and elected officials, served as an advisory board during the process of creating the plan, but the final version was ultimately developed by DOT staff in Raleigh then vetted through public hearings.

The adoption of the long-awaited comprehensive plan ends a five-year project to obtain a blueprint from the DOT for a road plan to accommodate the county’s growing population. While a victory for public input into the road planning process, the inclusion of the N.C. 107 Connector –– a project opposed by many locals –– makes that victory hollow for some.

Commissioner William Shelton, who served on the Jackson County Transportation Task Force, voted against adopting the plan because he wanted to send a message.

“In voting on this, I’m going to vote my conscience. I just want to send a message to the public and the DOT that this is not a heavy endorsement of the connector,” Shelton said.

Shelton said that while he backed nearly every aspect of the plan, including its community involvement process, he felt strongly that a ‘Yes’ vote could be seen as an endorsement of the N.C. 107 Connector.

Commissioner Tom Massie also voted against adopting the plan. Massie cited DOT statistics that show the connector road will likely not alleviate the traffic problems plaguing N.C. 107. Massie said the project would displace residents and create a negative environmental impact on the county.

“The reality is this is not going to reduce traffic on 107, particularly in the area where we want to go,” Massie said.

Massie said that the commuter traffic snarl that crops up on N.C. 107 twice a day is a small inconvenience.

“What are you spending? Another 10 minutes? That’s not traffic congestion in any other moderatel-sized community in this country,” Massie said.

Commissioner Joe Cowan voted for the plan and supports the construction of the connector road. He expressed his concern that a rejection of the plan would lead the DOT to yank the money already in the pipeline for the planning phase.

“This money is not going to last forever,” Cowan said. “All we need to do is turn it down a few times and it’ll go away.”

Cowan said the N.C. 107 Connector was the best solution he has heard regarding traffic congestion on Sylva’s commercial corridor.

“I’ve heard it discussed all of my life and I’m tired of listening to it. There is no good alternative,” Cowan said.

A fix for impending traffic congestion on N.C. 107 in Sylva doesn’t lie solely with a new bypass but will require a redesign of the commercial artery itself, according to the latest traffic projections by the Department of Transportation.

Two sides have emerged in the long-standing debate over whether to build a new highway around Sylva. One camp wants to build a bypass allowing commuters to skirt the commercial mire of N.C. 107. The other wants to redesign N.C. 107 so traffic flows better.

The answer could be both, according to recent DOT traffic projections. The Jackson County Transportation Task Force held a public meeting last week to gather input on both ideas, although participation was very low.

A new bypass would not divert enough cars from the commercial hotbed on N.C. 107 to solve future traffic woes, according to the traffic projections. Back-ups on the stretch largely stem from people coming and going from places along the congested stretch itself, according to Pam Cook, a DOT transportation planner working on a master transportation plan for Jackson County.

Opponents of a new bypass, known as the Southern Loop, have long insisted that it wouldn’t solve congestion. Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties, said he, too, always knew that a bypass wouldn’t solve all the problems. It’s one reason Setzer called for a separate congestion management study now underway by DOT experts in Raleigh.

Whether the result will be a full-fledged redesign of N.C. 107 or simply tinkering with the timing of stoplights won’t be known for at least a year, likely much longer. The congestion management study is still in its early stages — so early in fact there are no numbers on how much a redesign will help.

Theoretically, a host of congestion management techniques could be implemented, each one ratcheting up the traffic flow and reducing back-ups. Although the DOT engineers haven’t run the specific traffic models to see how much each technique would help, they’ve looked at it enough to say that whatever it is, it won’t be enough.

“Will it be enough to handle all the traffic to make it function well?” asked Cook. “Probably not. That is something we have to determine.”

Why not wait before making a decision in that case, asked Susan Leveille, a member of the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance.

“I am still a bit confused why we can’t look at congestion management on 107 before we spend hundreds of millions developing a bypass,” said Leveille. “You need to look at the small things you can do. You don’t bulldoze down your house because you need another bathroom.”

 

Decision pending

The Jackson County Transportation Task Force will be asked to endorse a countywide transportation master plan in the coming months. It not only will address N.C. 107, but span the entire county — from congestion in Cashiers to Main Street in Sylva to the campus of WCU.

The task force is being pushed to put its stamp of approval on a long-range plan — which at the moment calls for the construction of the bypass — before the traffic models for 107 fixes are finished.

Jeanette Evans, a member of Smart Roads and opponent of the by-pass, questioned the wisdom of endorsing a bypass until the task force has a better handle on how much fixes along N.C. 107 will help.

“I would like to be able to play with 107 in some respects to see how it works if we do this or that,” Evans said at a public meeting last week.

Ryan Sherby, a transportation coordinator who serves as a liaison between mountain communities and the DOT, questioned whether that was the task force’s job.

“The task force is a vision body, not an engineer body,” Sherby said.

“If you don’t know what the options are or the consequences of this or that action, how can you vision?” countered Leveille. “It seems to me like we are being asked to make a decision without all the information.”

Cook reiterated that congestion management, while needed, would fall short.

“My opinion at this point is that I don’t think there will be enough with congestion management,” Cook said.

Leveille and Evans said they did not understand why they are being rushed into approving a plan by July. The task force spent 18 months corralling and sifting through population and growth data. It only began the nitty-gritty work of analyzing the different road options two months ago. July is too soon to sign off on a master plan, they said, especially since it addresses everything from widening Main Street on the outskirts of Sylva to widening U.S. 64 in the middle of Cashiers.

“I don’t see how we can come up with a comprehensive plan in a matter of three or four months,” Leveille said.

Initially, the July deadline would allow the DOT to incorporate the task force recommendations into its annual planning process, Sherby said. It could be pushed back a couple months, however, Sherby said.

All the options are predicated on traffic models for 2035, when congestion on some roads will surpass what the DOT considers acceptable. But that model has been called into question.

“Are we planning for 2035 as we have lived in the past?” questioned Myrtle Schrader, who attended the meeting last week. “I don’t hear anything about the future of transportation. We need to look at what our lifestyle can and should be here in the mountains.”

Dr. Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College, said that it is fair and accurate to assume there will be more cars on the road by 2035.

“What we know is if we don’t do anything it only gets significantly worse and more difficult to correct. The population here is going to grow. So we have to make an educated guess the best we can,” Groves said.

Groves advocated for more thought-out land-use planning that would influence commercial growth, rather than figure out how to accommodate it once it has cropped up.

Another question involved the DOT’s definition of congestion. Is the congestion a brief spike during commuter hours, or is it sustained and chronic? Setzer said the congestion was more than a momentary spike, but wasn’t all-day congestion either.

 

Compromise afoot?

News that the DOT is considering a redesign of N.C. 107 coupled with a bypass — rather than either-or — could signal the beginning of a compromise.

The bypass, formerly known as the Southern Loop, was initially billed as a major freeway through southern Jackson County, looping from U.S. 23-74 north of Sylva to U.S. 441 south of Dillsboro. Somewhere in between it would cross N.C. 107 with a major interchange.

In response to public opposition, the DOT dropped half of the Southern Loop — the part extending to U.S. 441 south of Dillsboro.

The DOT is still seriously contemplating the other half, but the language describing the road has been toned down. Instead of the once-touted four-lane freeway, the DOT shifted gears in the past year to consider a two-lane road instead.

That two-lane road would claim enough right of way to accommodate four lanes one day, said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. It would still be designed for a speed of 55 miles per hour. It would still operate like a freeway in the sense of limited access from driveways or intersecting roads. And where it joined N.C. 107, it would likely have an interchange rather than an intersection with a stoplight, Setzer said. But the two-lane concept is scaled down nonetheless.

The Jackson County transportation task force has spent the past several months signing off on a projected traffic count for the future, namely the year 2035. Until road planners had a projection in front of them, they didn’t know what kind of overage they were dealing with, and whether the problem was a small one or big one.

“One of the driving forces behind any road in the future is the traffic projection for 2035, which is our horizon year right now,” said Ryan White, DOT project coordinator in Raleigh. “If we add no signals, no connecting roads, no bypass, in 2035, how is N.C. 107 going to operate? We have to establish there is truly a problem and that will show there is some type of improvement that is needed.”

White is coordinating the planning process for the Southern Loop, which is on a parallel track to the task force. While the task force brainstorms its solutions, the DOT is engaged in the planning process for the Southern Loop. If and when the Southern Loop is chosen as the best solution, the DOT will have a head start on the otherwise lengthy process of building a major new road.

The congestion projected for 2035 turns out to be only mediocre rather than terrible, according to Ryan Sherby, community transportation coordinator for 10 western counties.

Traffic models pinpointed the main drag of N.C. 107 from Lowe’s to the intersection has more cars than it can handle — about 1,000 to 2,000 too many during peak commuter times. The intersection of N.C. 107 and U.S. 23-74 was flagged as a problem area of its own.

“It pretty much showed what we all expected,” Sherby said.

But there are other areas in the county that will be experiencing traffic congestion by 2035 as well, including part of Main Street and Centennial Drive on the WCU campus.

Southern Loop planning has stalled somewhat in a quest for the best traffic projections. The numbers massaged by the task force were considered more up-to-date than the ones the DOT was using, so they are redoing their models accordingly. When done, White will know not only the volume of cars, but theoretically how they are moving along the road.

“We can see how cars are driving and turning,” White said.

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