The Macon County News
January 31, 2008
By Jessica Richardson, Staff Writer
Citizens group accuses NCDOT of deception and secrecy
Two routes, a northern and a southern have been proposed for the
Southern Loop that would attempt to bypass traffic particularly from
WCU off of 107. The eastern section of the loop connecting to 23/74 has
already received funding.
Following a recent cancellation of a transportation task force meeting,
the Smart Roads Alliance issued a formal public comment to N.C.
Department of Transportation regarding its controversial Southern Loop.
The comment was issued formally against the State Transportation
Improvement Plan and received on Jan. 15 by a project oversight manager
In the comment submitted by Smart Roads' member John Chinners, the
alliance outlines the background of the project and continues to stress
an alternative to the Southern Loop that could potentially require
rights-of-way to more than 120 residences and nearly 20 businesses.
Smart Roads makes a demand that alternatives to the multi-lane highway
be considered as viable and a cost comparison be done.
"We demand that DOT clearly identify alternatives to the Southern Loop
and enlarge the 'scope of work' for its Federal Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) to include such alternatives, including direct and
indirect potential impacts to the human and natural environments. We
also demand a cost comparison for the construction and mitigation of a
multi-lane freeway versus the upgrading of existing roads around 107
and/or an upgraded two-lane road nearer Western Carolina University
linking its campus and student traffic eastbound to Hwy 23/74."
Since its inception, the community-based organization has promoted
alternatives to the loop or bypass. As Chinners explains, the group has
worked with the transportation task force as well as local
municipalities in that effort. The Jackson County Board of
Commissioners created the task force in 2003, he said, with the task of
developing a comprehensive transportation plan to find solutions to
traffic congestion on 107. Solutions have included access management
The Southern Loop is a planned four-lane bypass of 107 that would have
limited points of access. The highway would connect traffic to 23/74
East near Blanton Branch and 23/441 in Dillsboro. The road would
connect to 107 around South River Road and would feasibly reroute
traffic from Western Carolina University and possibly from Southwestern
Also in 2003, Webster, Dillsboro, Sylva and Forest Hills passed
resolutions against the bypass. Smart Roads claims that "despite this
clear opposition, DOT proceeded with its planning for the southern
loop, which was placed on a 'prioritized' list of projects in 2006 by
Conrad Burrell and Joel Setzer."
Division 14 engineer Joel Setzer admits he and Burrell, division board
chair, told NCDOT that the road should be funded and cited continuing
through with a thoroughfare plan adopted by county leaders in the '90s
and noted that NCDOT is charged with addressing growth and increased
traffic. According to Setzer, though, the comprehensive transportation
plan is the current approach to the county road planning and that it
will consider other alternatives, even bussing, bicycling and
pedestrian paths. Until that plan is complete, NCDOT is moving forward
with the Southern Loop.
Little has been seen in the form of results from the relationship
between NCDOT and the Jackson County Transportation Task Force. The
lack of communication may stem from the fact that those assigned to the
task force have been based out of Raleigh and that person has changed
at least three times over the past five years. Setzer insisted that
community input will still play a large role in shaping the Southern
Loop project and other roads in the county.
Smart Roads hosted a public hearing on Jan. 10 that brought engineer
Walter Kulash to discuss a network of connections as an alternative to
According to the Smart Roads, "the concept for a network system was
first conceived by the Town of Sylva Planning Department in 2003," but
DOT considered the proposed alternatives and expansion of existing
roads as not feasible.
Smart Roads has accused NCDOT of moving forward with the plan despite
public opposition. According to Chinners, in November 2007, the group
invoked the N.C. Public Records Act to obtain all the documents from
District 14 pertaining to the Southern Loop and the task force. In the
comment, Chinners writes, "After reviewing this documentation we have
concluded: nothing in the documentation shows indirect public support
or any record of official meetings in support of the Southern Loop."
Smart Roads also claims that during a taped two-hour long recorded
discussion with Setzer that the decision to place the loop on a
priority list was based on "indirect public support and closed
breakfast meetings with local officials." Setzer claims that
information misrepresents him and has been used purposefully to mislead
DOT did recently place 107 on a list for a feasibility study, which,
according to Setzer, would take into consideration what would need to
be done to fix the road to carry projected 2025 traffic.
Before a Smart Roads Alliance public hearing two weeks ago, local
residents reviewed a map showing two potential routes for the Southern
Loop and wondered how their homes or businesses would be affected.
Such a feasibility study was conducted in 2003 on the Southern Loop
project, but it focused on two alternate routes for the road. That
study claims that the road is needed to relieve traffic congestion on
107 and US 23 Business in Sylva and Dillsboro. According to that
report, Jackson County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in
2000 requesting an investigation of options to relieve traffic. So far,
DOT's suggestions have been limited to the proposed bypass.
As the feasibility study points out, the thoroughfare plan was adopted
by Sylva and Dillsboro in 1994, but Smart Roads focuses on the fact
that those same municipalities (as well as the county) have since
As Smart Roads member Jeannette Evans noted at the recent public
hearing, $7 million has already been designated by the state to begin
right-of-way purchase for half the road in 2010- 2013. According to a
map released by NCDOT, that funding would go towards the eastern half
of the roadway from where it intersects with 107 around River Road and
connects with 23/74 East near Blanton Branch.
In a recent interview, Setzer said the connection to 23/74 is a higher
priority in comparison to the section connecting to Dillsboro. "The
question is do they need to connect all the way to 441 or build the
connection to old 107 and stop?" He added that the second section may
not be needed for another 20 years or so. He estimated the cost of the
southern loop to be approximately $220 million.
NCDOT has also recently hired KO Associates to conduct an environmental
impact assessment at the price of $200,000 on the Southern Loop
corridor. Smart Roads concludes that NCDOT's efforts to move forward
with the project shows that decisions have been made without fair
"There has been a clear record of deception and secrecy by NCDOT over
the past four years re: this project, including the willful exclusion
or non-consideration of viable alternatives, specifically any
consideration of a network system of roads either parallel or around
107 that would facilitate local traffic patterns," said Chinners.
Just in Oct. 2007, DOT came under fire at the state level for a study
conducted by McKinsey and Co. regarding how to improve the agency's
accountability. The study came at a price of $3.6 million and was
criticized for a cloak of secrecy surrounding it and many sections of
the study being blacked out. Republican leaders like Senate leader Phil
Berger responded to the study. Said Berger, "North Carolina's
transportation bureaucracy is in desperate need of reform ... At this
point, most people are asking why the DOT required the expenditure of
$3.6 million for consultants in order to do those things that any
objective observer would have recommended. It is past time for the DOT
to cut through the red tape and instead, utilize the tax dollars
provided to the department to address the road needs of our State."
N.C. State Treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard
Moore recently set the goal of trying to curb political influence at
the DOT. He apparently wants to see more transparency in setting the
agency's road-building priorities and called for a publicly available
analysis of projects. He also wants to ban political donations and
political fundraising by the agency's nine-member board, according to
columnist Scott Mooneyham.
In Macon County, residents seemed equally surprised as those in Sylva
when the DOT held a public meeting last fall on four alternatives for a
Siler Road extension. Although the agency claims the cause for the road
is to provide better access to SCC's Macon Campus, documents indicate
an interest to serve private development as well. Macon County Board of
Commissioners issued a resolution opposing many aspects of the proposed
roadways. According to DOT representatives, the Siler Road extension
project will now go before environmental state agencies for review.
For more information regarding Smart Roads Alliance visit
Those interested can make comments on the project through NCDOT's
website, www.ncdot.org. Be sure to note when making comments the number
of the Southern Loop project, R-4745 Division 14.
DOT contacts regarding Jackson County roads include DOT District
Engineer Joel Setzer at firstname.lastname@example.orgThis email address is
or Conrad Burrell c/o NCDOT – District 14 Sylva Office 253 Webster Rd.
Sylva, NC 28779.
Planning Consultant for Jackson County is Zaneta G. Adme, 1554 Mail
Service Center Raleigh, NC 27699, 919-715-5737 ext. 62,
email@example.comThis email address is being protected from spam
Rural Planning Organizer Ryan Sherby can also be contacted at 125
Bonnie Lane Sylva, NC 29779, 828-586-1962 ext. 214. The Rural Planning
Organization acts as a liaison to the DOT and makes suggestions based
on input at rural planning committee meetings.
A Jackson County Transportation Committee meeting is planned for
Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 1 p.m. at the Jackson County Justice Center.