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Wednesday, 22 June 2011 12:56

Jackson commissioner keeps on DOT warpath

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Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.

“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”

The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”

At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.

Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.

Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.

Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.

“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.

The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.

It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.

“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.

Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.

“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.

Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”

“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”

Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.

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