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A new day for N.C. 107

A new day for N.C. 107

The congested, five-lane drag through Sylva will soon meet its maker.

A $36 million project to re-do the commercial thoroughfare of N.C. 107 is officially in the planning stages, and last week the N.C. Department of Transportation unveiled the long-awaited schematic designs of what the new road might look like.

More than 175 people cycled through a public input meeting held at Southwestern Community College Thursday night to see what the road planners have come up with.

Crowds perused massive maps, pondered the sundry lane configurations, studied the width of cross-sections, mused over bike lanes and sidewalks and generally tried to puzzle their way through the four designs the DOT has proffered for a new-and-improved 107.

“I’m trying to decipher it,” said Jim Montsinger, pressing closer to the giant poster boards to peer at the diagrams.

As Jennifer Cooper dove into a crowd hovering over flat maps unfurled on long tables, she said she appreciated DOT’s outreach to share options with the public.

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“Looking at the diagrams, it’s a little hard to decipher,” admitted Cooper, who drives the road daily on her way to work at Western Carolina University.

But there was one overarching take-away that rose above the melee. Under every design option, the dreaded middle-turn lane will be dug up and replaced with medians and islands.

“The five-lane did work at one time, but with the increase in traffic it gets to a point where it starts to fail,” explained Brian Burch, DOT project development engineer based in Sylva.

A cacophony of left turns is the culprit of 107’s woes. Drivers darting back and forth from one side of the road to the other not only creates congestion, but also causes wrecks, Burch said.

Stop the hair-raising mad dash across lanes of oncoming traffic, and the traffic will flow better and more safely, according to Jack Debnam, a former county commissioner who sits on the state DOT board.

“Everybody I know has had a wreck on 107, more people than not,” Debnam said. “There’s driveway after driveway, people dashing out, making left turns, and there’s the murder lane.”

Medians and islands down the center of 107 will force drivers wanting to get to the other side of the road to do a U-turn and double back instead of cutting across.

“It takes some time to get folks used to it,” said Michael Reese, a congestion management expert with N.C. DOT.

But the result works.

“By redirecting movements we are minimizing conflict points and reducing congestion and improving traffic flow,” Reese said.

It seems worth a try to Johnny Buchanan, who showed up to see what last week’s meeting would reveal about 107’s future. He remembers riding his bike along 107 as a boy.

“You’d go down the street and throw your hand up to everybody coming and going,” Buchanan said, recalling the 1950s and ‘60s. Seeing it so commercialized has been “disheartening in a way,” Buchanan said.

“It’s like a lot of small towns here in the mountains. They’ve outgrown themselves,” he said.

Like Buchanan, Harold Hensley has had a bird’s-eye view of 107’s growth over the past five decades.

“You could about play ball out in the middle of the road,” Hensley said of days gone by.

Hensley, a long time Sylva town board member, lives a stone’s throw from 107, and like so many Jackson County residents he has to drive it to get just about anywhere.

Therein lies 107’s great conundrum. It’s the commercial artery people use when buying their groceries, filling prescriptions, cashing checks and wheeling through fastfood windows. But it’s also a main commuter route, forcing the helpless masses to slog through the congestion just to get to work and home again.

“I don’t have to tell anybody in this room it’s a heavily traveled corridor,” said Steve Brown, an engineering consultant with HDR, a firm commissioned by DOT to develop the 107 redesign.

But the irritation of 107 traffic hasn’t been enough to convince Hensley or the community at large to buy into the DOT’s long-proffered solution to build a brand-new, cross-country highway bypassing 107.

“I think we need something done to 107. It needs an upgrade, but we don’t need a bypass,” Hensley said.

Last week’s unveiling of an N.C. 107 redesign finally made it clear that the controversial Southern Loop is dead for the foreseeable future.

For 15 years, the DOT had pursued the idea of building a bypass around 107. Community activists lobbied tirelessly to ditch the Southern Loop and instead redesign 107 in a way that moves traffic more pleasantly. Eventually public perception won out. 

Jason Kimenker, an instrumental voice behind the grassroots Smart Roads Coalition, commended the public for its staying power during the 107 debate. 

“We have the room as packed tonight as we did at day one. People are still excited to be part of the process,” Kimenker said, pausing from the maps for a moment of reflection. “This is a 100-year project. The results of which will effect not only ourselves, but our children and grandchildren will be enjoying the fruits of the labor we have put in.”


Coming next week

The Smoky Mountain News will dive into the details of the coming redesign of N.C. 107 in next week’s issue, along with the history of the infamous Southern Loop and an overview of commercial corridor makeovers elsewhere in the region. Here’s a preview of the coverage:

Over and out

The journey to a redesign of Sylva’s commercial artery has been more than two decades in the making. It’s been a bitter battle at times, pitting the competing visions of a cross-country bypass around N.C. 107 against improvements to the existing road. The players over the past 20 years will weigh in where we now and how we got here. 

Death of the five-lane, birth of the boulevard

Sylva isn’t the only mountain town getting a redesign of its major commercial thorough-fare. Franklin and Waynesville are also getting a makeover of their main arteries. In all three towns, the five-lane drags clogged with fast-food joints, big-box stores and stop lights will jettison the middle suicide lane for the latest trend in road design: the up-and-coming boulevard concept.

Devil’s in the details

Four design options for a new N.C. 107 in Sylva were unveiled by the N.C. DOT last week. The ball is now in the public’s court to weigh in on what they want. Intersection patterns, U-turn placement, sidewalks and bike lanes, and landscaping plans will make or break how well the redesign is executed. Check out our guide on the road plans to maximize your community input.

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