Task force wants final crack at honing road listWritten by Becky Johnson
Dueling solutions for relieving traffic on N.C. 107 in Sylva are poised to make the final cut in the long-awaited Jackson County Transportation Plan.
Both a bypass around the commercial thoroughfare and redesign of the road itself could ultimately be pursued, working in tandem to solve congestion rather than being an either-or proposition.
The task force charged with creating a long-range transportation plan for the county still faces a looming question, however: which one will appear on top of their list? Task force members are split over that question.
Dean Coward, an accountant in Sylva who is on the task force, believes the bypass is the answer, creating a new connector from U.S. 23-74 into the Cullowhee area that would avoid the bottleneck along the commercial stretch of N.C. 107.
“I hate to see that torn up,” Coward said of the countryside that would be impacted. “But the honest truth is that it is the only thing that will give real relief.”
Coward’s wife, who works at Western Carolina University, leaves for work at 7 a.m. to avoid traffic on N.C. 107, even though it puts her at work far earlier than she needs to be there.
But others on the task force would rather see trouble spots on N.C. 107 fixed first, including Alan Grant, who works at Southwestern Community College. Grant has sat through up to four light cycles at the intersection of N.C. 107 and U.S. Business 23 on Friday afternoon.
“I think almost everyone in Jackson County would think that is a major problem,” Grant said.
As for the bypass: “I am not against it, I just don’t think it is a panacea,” Grant said.
Still others on the task force don’t think a bypass belongs on the final list at all.
“In my view, once they fix the light timing on N.C. 107, I don’t think we really have a traffic problem,” said Don Selzer, another task force member. “There are certain times of day when things back up a little bit, but I don’t think it is a big deal.”
While reconciling the divergent views seems unlikely, task force members say they should attempt to rank the projects by priority and then vote on a final plan. It is unclear whether they will have that chance, however.
The coordinator of the task force, Ryan Sherby of the Southwestern Commission, said the task force has completed its charge of creating a master transportation plan.
At the last task force meeting, members assigned scores of 1 through 5 to a laundry list of road projects that were developed by the task force over the past years. Sherby tallied the scores and said the list now suffices as a transportation plan for the county.
Task force members feel otherwise, however. Those on both sides of the most contentious road project — a new bypass around N.C. 107 — want the opportunity to prioritize the list and to take a formal vote on it.
“With the limited financing from the state, we need to be absolutely sure that number one, two and three on the list are the real priorities,” Grant said. “It is the difference between reality and a wish list.”
Task force members didn’t realize walking into the last meeting that they would be asked to score the projects. The format for the meeting wasn’t revealed until its outset, allowing task force members little time to contemplate their answer, they said.
“It has got to be prioritized, but I don’t think going around the table and loosely getting people to throw out a score is the way to do it,” Coward said.
Grant says he would like to reconsider his score for a couple of the projects, describing the initial scoring process as merely “suggestive.”
Susan Levielle, another task force member, said she felt so flustered when it was her turn to rank the bypass that she gave it a high score even though she is adamantly opposed to it.
Task force members have yet to see a final tally of how each road project scored. Sherby compiled a spreadsheet of the rankings that shows the cumulative scores for each project, but has not disseminated it to the task force members — another reason they see the need to meet again.
“If I have been involved and put the energy in this far, I need to see the final plan to express an opinion on it before it goes out the door,” said Grant. “It still needs some finishing up.”
Few happy with results
While some opponents to a N.C. 107 connector say the task force didn’t give them adequate time to discuss their concerns, those who are for the bypass feel like too much time was dedicated to it.
Dean Coward said representatives from Smart Roads, a citizens group opposed to the bypass, have dominated the task force meetings, and as a result, he isn’t overly pleased with how the process went.
“I don’t see we are accomplishing a whole lot. I think we are spinning our wheels,” Coward said. “I think our role needs to be a little clearer as to what we are to do and who’s responsible for what. We have just been floundering around.”
Coward thinks the scoring system undertaken at the last meeting was an attempt to keep naysayers from continuing to bog down the process, but perhaps overcompensated. A plan was rapidly shepherded to the finish line and the result isn’t a very useful list, Coward said. Coward would rather see the task force prioritize the projects and then vote on the list — even if it results in a split vote.
Coward admits a consensus will be difficult, however. But the lack of a bona fide ranking system doesn’t do justice to the most serious problem of all: N.C. 107.
“It is the one road that affects everybody in the county,” Coward said. “I think you got to deal with 107 separately and then you can get about the other things that need to happen.”
Coward called the bypass aruund 107 “the elephant in the room.”
Levielle agrees. She suggests taking 107 off the list completely and dealing with it as a separate issue, allowing the rest of the transportation plan to advance with the task force’s endorsement, unfettered by controversy.
The appearance of both projects in the county’s transportation plan pleases Joel Setzer, the head of the Department of Transportation for the region.
“I honestly believe that both are needed,” Setzer said.
That’s what Setzer has been saying for several years. The task force seems to concur, he said, and the recommendation is supported by the traffic models created over the course of the task force’s work. Those traffic models show that congestion management alone along N.C. 107 couldn’t handle all the traffic projected along the road by the year 2035, Setzer said.
“I think if the task force and the model had said the new connection isn’t needed, I would have had to say I was mistaken and am sorry for that,” Setzer said. “I am relieved somewhat that my opinions after we started doing some number generation seem to be validated. That is always reassuring.”
But the traffic models were based on only a partial set of plans, according to some task force members. A feasibility study by DOT to fix N.C. 107 is only in the preliminary stages, so traffic engineers providing data to the task force couldn’t accurately gauge how much traffic would be improved by a redesign when the redesign hasn’t been formulated yet.
Don Selzer, a task force member, gave low scores to both congestion management fix for N.C. 107 and the bypass. He was under the impression congestion management meant extensive widening of N.C. 107 with more lanes — and if that’s what it means he’s against it. If it simply means targeting problem intersections, he’s for it.
Dean Coward also had trouble scoring congestion management since he didn’t know exactly what it entailed.
“It seems to be a generic term for a problem,” Coward said.
DOT’s Joel Setzer agrees that it’s unclear what fixing N.C. 107 would entail, whether that would mean extra lanes, perhaps roundabouts, side roads to handle traffic or some other combination. A feasibility study for a redesign of N.C. 107 is currently in the works but is far from complete.
As for which to pursue first — a new connector or 107 redesign — Setzer leans toward the bypass. Once completed, it would give drivers a way around N.C. 107, which could be crucial during construction on the thoroughfare itself.
“It is going to be a nightmare when that thing is under construction,” Setzer said.
Cart before the horse?
While the task force has not been afforded the opportunity to vote on the transportation plan, a regional transportation board already signed off on the draft plan last week. At a quarterly meeting of the Regional Planning Organization, comprised of elected leaders from six counties, Sherby asked the board to conditionally approve the Jackson County Transportation Plan.
Sherby said he planned to present the plan to the Jackson County commissioners in December, as well as to all four municipalities in the county, and expected them all to approve it. He asked the regional transportation planning body to go ahead and approve the plan, assuming that the elected bodies follow suit.
“I thought we could pass a resolution of support contingent on the county and four municipalities, that if they pass it by default the RPO supports it,” Sherby told members at the meeting.
As a result, the regional transportation board unanimously endorsed the task force’s plan, even though the task force itself has yet to endorse it.