About 20 people attended a public hearing last week to question why the Southern Loop made the priority list. The highway would bisect Jackson County somewhere between Sylva and Cullowhee. Opponents at the hearing succeeded in postponing a final vote on the list and extending the public comment period.
The list is presumably developed by community leaders and sent to the Department of Transportation to help guide decisions on which roads get built. The list is created and voted on by a transportation advisory committee comprised of local officials. In this case, however, none of the local officials representing Jackson County asked for the Southern Loop to be put on the list. Instead, it was put on the list by the coordinator for the committee who serves a liason between the DOT and the committee members.
The transportation advisory committee was slated to vote on the list this week, giving its stamp of approval before sending it to the DOT. For the Southern Loop to be placed on the list, then have the advisory committee endorse the list as if it was their own idea, is a “convoluted attempt to railroad this project,” said Roger Turner, an opponent of the Southern Loop and representative of Western North Carolina Alliance.
It was only appropriate to delay the vote on the list, Turner said. The public had not been given proper notice of the public hearing, Turner said. The fact that the Southern Loop was on the list came out only five days prior to the hearing.
Delaying the vote for three weeks still doesn’t allow for proper vetting of the list by the community, however, namely the county commissioners and town boards, Turner said.
“Absolutely I don’t think there should be a vote at this point,” Turner said. “There needs to be whole lot more input from Jackson County on this.”
The transportation advisory committee is regional in nature, with local officials from the six western counties sitting on it. Turner said it was outrageous that officials from other counties should get to vote on a list of road projects that are in turn sent to the DOT as a reflection of Jackson County’s priorities.
Turner also questioned why the town of Webster is not represented on the advisory committee — only Sylva, Dillsboro and the county. The Southern Loop would likely come close to, if not bisect, the town of Webster. Elected officials for Webster have come out against the highway. Given the town’s position, Turner said it was “convenient” for the DOT that the town was somehow left off the committee.
Ryan Sherby, a transportation planner with the Southwestern Commission charged with coordinating the transportation advisory committee, agreed that Webster should indeed have a seat at the table. Sherby inherited the role of coordinating the committee less than six months ago.
Sherby has now asked the town of Webster to appoint a representative to the committee within the next couple of weeks — hopefully prior to the final vote on the list. The town of Forest Hills has also been invited to appoint a representative to the committee.
There are two arms to the transportation advisory committee: one is comprised primarily of elected town and county officials while the other is comprised of town and county staff, such as town and county managers, planners and economic development directors.
The two committees will meet Oct. 16 at 10:30 a.m. and noon at the Macon County Courthouse to vote on the list.
In addition to the Southern Loop, the list for Jackson County also calls for shoulder widening along a four-mile stretch of N.C. 107 in the Tuckasegee community and an access road behind the Southwestern Community College campus that would create a new intersection with N.C. 107. It also calls for a couple of dozen other road projects — from major highways to lane widening — from other counties.