The motivation behind a $12 million entrance road to Southwestern Community College has been called into question by a Jackson County commissioner.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County commissioners, claims the road catapulted past others to the top of the list.
“We all had other projects pushed back to get this in,” Debnam said.
The road first appeared on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s list of proposed projects in March 2007. A month later, it was allocated $400,000 to begin planning. Construction is scheduled to begin in the second half of next year.
SEE ALSO (PDF download): DOT proposal
That’s not exactly fast-tracked, according to Joel Setzer, head of the Department of Transportation’s Division 14, a 10-county area with its main office in Sylva.
“It has taken a normal pace for a project of the magnitude that it is,” Setzer said. Granted some projects take longer, much longer, but this one was very straightforward in its design, has no environmental issues and little right-of-way to acquire.
The purpose of the new entrance road is to serve SCC’s expanding campus and for safety, according to the DOT. The college buildings are built into a hillside. The entire campus only has one entrance now, and if blocked, students could be trapped during an emergency.
Commissioner Joe Cowan emphasized this point as a counterpoint to Debnam’s questions over the project.
“If we had a real emergency there and that one way got blocked, there is no way to get there with an ambulance or fire truck,” Cowan said.
Both Tuscola High School in Waynesville and Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva were in similar straits. Each had a single road in and out and are also situated on a hillside. Both have had second entrance roads built with DOT funds in recent years.
Bridge over 107
The new entrance road calls for an overpass above N.C. 107 with on- and off-ramps. The interchange could serve a dual purpose in the future for the Southern Loop, a proposed bypass around the clogged commercial artery of N.C. 107, according to Conrad Burrell, a member of the state DOT board who lives in Sylva. The bypass would need an interchange where it connects with N.C. 107 anyway, likely in the same vicinity, so this one could play that role some day.
“That would be the logical place to put it,” Burrell said, adding they have suggested as much to road planners in Raleigh.
Lydia Aydlett suspects the interchange for the SCC road was designed with the Southern Loop in mind. The same people in the DOT who planned the SCC road are planning for the Southern Loop — namely Burrell and Setzer — so it is only logical they would devise a way for the projects to converge, said Aydlett, a member of Smart Roads Alliance that opposes the Southern Loop.
However, that was in no way the driving force behind the interchange design for the SCC entrance road, according to Setzer.
“That really was not the objective of the interchange. We were not trying to speculate where the 107 connector, if it is ever built, would come in,” Setzer said.
Debnam accused the SCC entrance road of ballooning from a simple intersection as first proposed to a much larger and costlier interchange sporting an overpass with ramps. The interchange design was chosen in lieu of a standard intersection because it is cheaper and safer, according to Steve Williams, a road engineer with the DOT office in Sylva.
Since SCC sits on a hillside, the entrance road must climb up from N.C. 107 to reach campus, Williams said. An elevated interchange means less excavation into the hillside when making that climb.
“The cost was cheaper to do a bridge because of the size of the cut,” Williams said.
It is also safer. If traffic backed up at a stoplight, drivers woudn’t know it until cresting the hill.
“You would abruptly be on stopped traffic,” Setzer said. “We were worried that would be a safety issue.”
The overpass design came as a shock last year to Jeanette Evans, a member of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force that was tasked two years ago with crafting a long-range road plan for the county.
Since the SCC road was already in the pipeline, it was never specifically discussed by the task force. But it appeared on all the DOT maps they used.
“It looked really innocuous,” said Evans.
Evans wasn’t the only one surprised.
“Maybe if the overpass (design) was talked about, it may have raised some opposition on the task force,” said Ryan Sherby, a liaison between local leaders and the six-county Rural Planning Organization.
However, the interchange design was adopted early in the design process. At a public meeting on the project in 2008, the DOT presented three concepts for the new entrance road and solicited public feedback. Two of those three options called for an interchange. At a second public meeting in 2010, the DOT again showed maps and handed out brochures showing interchange-style design options.
According to an attendance roster, at least two members of Smart Roads attended the first public meeting in 2008 where the interchange design was shared.
Help to congestion?
As a side benefit, the new entrance will relieve congestion at the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 by giving students an alternative way onto campus, according to the DOT.
“I think it will take a quite a bit of traffic off that intersection. That was part of it,” Burrell said.
As of 2009, 11,000 vehicles a day traveled past the college on N.C. 116. Clearly not all of them were coming and going to the college — around 2,500 students take classes at the Sylva campus, but not all students come to campus every day.
How many vehicles would use the new entrance road, and whether it would take much pressure off the existing intersection, is doubtful, Debnam said.
“It is not going to pull that many people out of that intersection,” Debnam said.
Those coming to SCC from the Sylva area won’t be able to use the new entrance road. It would be used only by those coming from the Cullowhee area. Those leaving campus can use the interchange to head in either direction