The idea behind the endeavor is to increase parking near businesses along downtown’s back street while reducing speeding on the road. Mill Street merchants have long complained that scant parking along the road makes it easier for potential customers to pass them by, and when the right lane was temporarily closed and used for parking following a fire downtown in August 2014, the arrangement drew favorable reviews from downtown business owners.
In August 2016, Sylva’s town board passed a resolution endorsing permanently converting Mill Street to a one-lane road. Currently, the two-lane street runs west through downtown, with eastbound traffic using two-lane Main Street. However, the left lane of Main Street is reserved for left turns only, so through traffic has only one lane in which to travel.
In total, the lane reduction project will cost about $65,000, with $33,000 coming from the town and $32,000 from the N.C. Department of Transportation. Sylva had already spent $13,000, which went for new pedestrian flashers at the Landis Street intersection, but approval for the $20,000 to fund lane conversion and new sidewalks was still required to move forward with the project.
Proponents of the project believe that it will boost foot traffic in downtown Sylva without substantially impeding automobile traffic. Plans call for removal of the traffic light at the intersection of Mill, Allen and Spring streets — made possible by closing the lane of Spring Street that allows traffic to travel from Main Street downhill to Mill — which engineers believe will offset any congestion called by the lane reduction.
However, opponents of the project feel that it will have some impact on traffic congestion and that the benefits don’t justify the cost to the town’s slender budget.
“This is a pretty expensive fix to a problem that I don’t see as a problem,” Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh said in August. Gelbaugh was the sole nay vote.
Nobody gave public comment on the issue during the April 13 meeting when the funding was approved, said Town Manager Paige Dowling.
The next step for the town will be to determine when work will commence. The project will be funded through the budget year that ends June 30, Dowling said, and she plans to meet with DOT officials soon to finalize a timeline. According to Wanda Austin, project team lead for the DOT, the town has requested that work begin after the April 22 Greening Up the Mountains Festival concludes. Austin believes construction will take two to four weeks.
“We want to minimize the impact to traffic as much as possible in the summer months, but this change is made to benefit the businesses,” Dowling said. “So we’ll try to do it quickly.”