For years, a contingent of Jackson County residents have railed against the brainchild of road builders who wanted to cut a new cross-country bypass through the mountains, skirting the commercial drag between Sylva and Cullowhee.
Instead, they proposed redesigning N.C. 107 itself with traffic tricks and fixes. Their ranks grew over the years, from a band of alternative, progressive Smart Growth types making their case from the periphery to eventually encompass the mainstream thinking of town and county leaders.
The N.C. Department of Transportation last week agreed to try that approach first, temporarily shelving plans for the long-proposed bypass in favor of a 107 fix.
“People spoke loudly and clearly they wanted to have N.C. 107 improvements done first, and then if it doesn’t solve all the problems, you come back and do the N.C. 107 connector,” said Zahid Baloch, a DOT project engineer based in Raleigh. “We felt like it was the best idea to go with the wishes of the people and what they want. So that is the whole thing we are trying to do.”
Once known as the Southern Loop, and later renamed “the connector,” the bypass was intended to siphon thru-traffic away from the congested commercial thoroughfare, thus making it less congested.
But when road planners began crunching the numbers, they realized it wouldn’t do as much to help congestion on N.C. 107 as hoped.
The DOT intially embraced the idea of redesigning N.C. 107, but only in tandem with building a new highway bypass.
“My position and my opinion all along are both are needed,” said Joel Setzer, head of a 10-county DOT division in the mountains, based in Sylva.
Now though, the connectors has taken a back seat.
Setzer has long been a champion of the Southern Loop, a.k.a. “connector.” But last week, he said he sees the merit in first studying a redesign of N.C. 107 first.
“Whether we do one first or the other one first has not been a big issue with me. This is not disappointing to me,” Setzer said. “I think it is a good thing the department can now focus on improving 107 and do the designs and have the conversations around that and see where it leads. I supported this decision 100 percent.”
Both Setzer and Baloch said they would not go so far as saying the new bypass route has been suspended, or on hold, or even on the back burner.
But it won’t get worked on any more until a plan for redesigning N.C. 107 is fully vetted and designed.
Coming next week: A long and twisted road
A redesign of N.C. 107 has been put ahead of the controversial bypass, formerly known as the “Southern Loop.” Read more about how we got here and what happens next in next week’s issue.