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Wednesday, 03 October 2007 00:00

Southern Loop opposition mounts

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Jackson County residents opposed to the construction of the Southern Loop — a new major highway that would bisect Jackson County — are gearing up for a fight with the N.C. Department of Transportation to halt the slow but steady gears toward eventual construction.

Opponents to the Southern Loop gained some traction this week in their quest to get the DOT to consider alternative means of alleviating traffic congestion on N.C. 107 — the primary commercial corridor through Jackson County — other than building a new four-lane bypass. A comprehensive transportation plan that would presumably study alternative traffic management has been stalled for four years, while progress on the Southern Loop has managed to advance. The issue was discussed during a meeting of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force on Monday (Oct. 1).

“Before we keep chugging ahead with a Southern Loop, we need to do the comprehensive plan,” said Jay Coward, a Sylva attorney. “We do not need a four-lane highway on the south side of Sylva right now. We need to fix what we have with N.C. 107.”

Susan Leveille, a Webster resident and member of the Smart Roads Coalition, agreed.

“Why would we want to move forward until we get that study?” Leveille said. “I agree we can’t ignore that we have concerns. Anybody that thinks we aren’t going to grow is crazy. But to pursue a project when we haven’t even studied what some of the problems are seems to me to be ludicrous.”

The renewed debate was prompted by the sudden inclusion of the controversial highway on a list of priority road projects for the region. A regional transportation advisory committee comprised of community leaders submits a list of road priorities to the DOT each year to help guide road-building decisions. The Southern Loop was put on the list at the behest of the DOT, however, not the community leaders that comprise the committee.

“From the beginning the DOT has always attempted to slip in the Southern Loop anyway they could and this is yet another way right here in black and white,” Coward said.

“It is clear to me DOT is pursuing its own agenda,” said Roger Turner, a member of the Smart Roads Alliance. The DOT this spring quietly allocated funding to start the planning phase of the Southern Loop, ignoring a standing four-year request from Jackson County citizens and leaders to first develop a comprehensive transportation plan to see if the Southern Loop is truly needed.

When controversy broke out over the appearance of the Southern Loop on the list, approval of the list by the advisory committee was postponed for two weeks, allowing time for the list to be modified before it gets sent to Raleigh.

That prompted an emergency meeting of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force to weigh in on the list. Leveille suggested removing the Southern Loop from the priority list altogether.

“Leave if off the list until we figure it out. Otherwise it will be accelerated,” Leveille said.

“The fact is it gets harder and harder to modify a project as it goes along,” Turner added.

But other members of the task force were hesitant to nix it altogether — not because they whole-heartedly support the Southern Loop, but because if it gets bumped from funding it could take forever to get it back on again. Jim Aust, Sylva town planner, recommended leaving the Southern Loop on the list but simultaneously pursuing other options, and killing the Southern Loop if need be later.

“We need to gear up the task force and move forward with some concrete proposal to DOT to help alleviate traffic congestion on 107,” Aust said.

The Jackson County Transportation Task Force voted unanimously to put the development of a comprehensive transportation plan above the Southern Loop on the priority list. The Jackson County Board of commissioners echoed the proposal — voting unanimously to make a comprehensive transportation plan the community’s top priority.

“Wouldn’t you normally finish your transportation plan before you decide what your priority projects are?” posed Commissioner Tom Massie, drawing applause from the audience.

But Leveille said the DOT seems to be moving ahead despite a lack of public input or community discussion of whether the new highway is the best option. The DOT is not obligated to take any recommendation it gets — from the county commissioners, the Jackson Transportation task force, nor the regional transportation advisory committee. Members of the task force equated their request with tugging on Superman’s cape.

But, if the DOT ignores this request — after being placed first on the community’s list of priorities — it will have some explaining to do, Commissioner William Shelton said.

“I think what’s important is to get this comprehensive study to the top of the list. A comprehensive study is something Superman would have a hard time saying no to because it makes good common sense,” Shelton said.

Several citizens appeared before the Jackson commissioners urging them not to endorse the Southern Loop.

“New roads only create more traffic and more sprawl. Please do not let this happen,” said Turner.

Harold Messer, a construction worker, told commissioners voters would be watching how they handle the Southern Loop issue — namely whether the commissioner tacitly endorse it or aid citizens in opposing it.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of your constituents who will fight the construction of the Southern Loop,” Messer said. “It is our intention to hold each and every one of you accountable for your decisions.”

Messer said Conrad Burrell, one of 14 state DOT board members who happens to be from Jackson County, has been pushing the Southern Loop behind the scenes.

Jason Kimenker, a Sylva restaurant owner and member of Smart Roads, said the Southern Loop would have a devastating effect on the mountain landscape and heritage, not to mention the families who would be moved off their land for right of way.

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