Task force declared finished as draft plan advances for public review

Some members of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force feel like the list of road projects bearing their name has not properly been vetted, despite the work of the task force being declared finished.

“I think the task force has satisfied their charge in creating a comprehensive transportation plan,” said Ryan Sherby, community transportation coordinator with the Southwestern Regional Commission.

After a stint before the public for comment later this month, Sherby anticipates shipping the plan along to the county commissioners for approval and then sending it up the chain to guide road building priorities by the N.C. Department of Transportation. At this point, Sherby doesn’t intend the task force will ever formally vote on the plan — even though the plan will bear their name and they will be credited with creating it.

“This isn’t a real rigid process,” Sherby said.

Some task force members were surprised to learn, however, that their work is done. At their most recent meeting, they were never told it would be their last. They also weren’t told that the plan — essentially a list of future road projects — was in its final form and being sent on to county commissioners for a stamp of approval without the task force formally endorsing it.

“From my standpoint, there was no integrity or forthrightness about what was happening at that last meeting,” said Susan Leveille, a member of the task force and of the Smart Roads coalition. “We were being rushed.”

After more than year of poring over growth and traffic projections, the task force spent the past five months coming up with a list of new road projects that would make travel safer and faster.

Rather than vetting the list through discussion, however, task force members were asked to rank each project on a scale of 1 to 5. Task force members were asked to go around the table and verbally call out their score for each project, a process repeated 17 times for each road project on the list. The numbers for each project were tallied to decide which stayed on the list. Only one came off.

Sherby called it a “consensus building exercise.” The format for the meeting came as a surprise, however.

“We knew that we were going to be making some choices,” Leveille said. “But we had no idea what the procedure was going to be. We had no idea there would be a facilitator that was railroading us through this. I expected some thoughtful discussion.”

For some on the task force, the recent episode is indicative of the entire process.

“The task force was not in the driver’s seat,” said Jeanette Evans, another member of the Smart Roads coalition. “It felt steamrolled.”

Another source of confusion is exactly what the rankings were supposed to reflect.

“That’s a good question,” said Don Selzer, a task force member appointed by the county commissioners. “My understanding was that it was a vote to put certain options before the public — not necessarily ones we recommended but these are the options available.”

However, the rankings are apparently being viewed as an endorsement of the road projects on the list by the task force, since there is no plan to bring the list back to the task force for a vote. That is upsetting to Leveille, since she gave a high ranking to the Southern Loop, a controversial bypass around the commercial district of N.C. 107. Leveille is against the project and would have scored it much lower if she understood it was somehow a final vote. But she gave it a high ranking simply because she thought it merited additional discussion.

Sherby said the plan rests with county commissioners now, along with elected town leaders, and it will be their call whether the list goes back to the task force to formally sign off on the plan.

“If the county commissioners want the task force to do that then we will,” Sherby said.

That may be something the commissioners ask for, said County Commissioner William Shelton.

“There is always the possibility the commissioners would have some more questions of the task force before it goes to final approval,” said Shelton, who is on the task force.

Shelton is among those who were surprised that the plan is supposedly complete and the task force wouldn’t be meeting again. Shelton thinks the laundry list of road projects should be assigned a more thoughtful ranking than its current form.

Selzer is also uncomfortable with the lack of finality the last meeting had. He doesn’t think the plan as is can be touted as something the task force has endorsed.

“I would like to see a final list and say ‘yes or no, this is what we want,’” Selzer said. Selzer said he is “not terribly satisfied” with the process the task force used to create a plan.

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