A road project in Jackson County has transformed from a somewhat small safety concern to a boiling issue that seems to have run over.
The project, dubbed R-5000, entails the construction of a connector road of 0.7 miles running from NC 116 through the Southwestern Community College (SCC) campus, and ending at US 107. For an institution that began as a single building on the side of a hill and has grown to nine buildings since, the need for safety of the student-body, faculty and staff has also grown. With only one entrance and one exit to the campus, concerns of a possible disaster began to surface and in 1994, plans to address the issue started to develop. The new road was included in SCC's Master Plan before tragedies such as the Columbine High School shooting and the attacks of 9/11, in hopes that another exit would alleviate the stress on a bottle neck evacuation of the grounds if a campus-wide emergency ever did take place.
Aside from the safety concern, a decrease in congestion would also be a benefit of a new roadway. An estimated 11,000 vehicles pass the Southwestern Campus everyday on NC 116 which happens to be where the entrance to the campus lies. According to SCC, more than 2,600 students enroll annually, while 5,500 students participate in courses, seminars, and workshops offered through continuing education. Though there are also campuses in Franklin, Bryson City, and Cashiers, it is very rare that students at these campuses do not travel to the main campus multiple times a semester, if not each week. The North Carolina Department of Transportation proposes that constructing a twolane road through the campus will improve traffic flow and reduce congestion.
Despite the reasons for the project which originally started at a price tag of $6 million, public outcry is now being directed towards the NCDOT as the project has grown larger than the at-grade road it once was and therefore has now hiked the price up to $24.9 million.
Joel Setzer, NCDOT Division 14 engineer, attributes the price increase to a few different factors which were not included in the initial estimates of the road, the first being a need to purchase right of way from SCC in order to build a roundabout at the junction of the SCC entrance and NC 116. “NCDOT believed the right of way needed for the road along SCC property would be donated,” said Setzer. “This was based upon discussion with SCC officials and NCDOT officials.”
This was not the case, however.
Climbing estimates of property value between the school and NC 107 also became a driving force in the increased budget. Negotiations are still in progress to obtain these parcels, therefore information is restricted until it becomes public record.
The construction of new culverts also became a new burden to the project. According to Setzer, when the project was in development, NCDOT was unsure of the scope of work and as a result made crude estimates of what it could cost. Since the culverts under the Myers Auditorium Parking Lot were relatively new and had never shown any signs of flooding, the NCDOT assumed they would not need replacing, but as the design began to progress, it became apparent that the culverts were, in fact, too small to meet the state's standards and due to the location of the proposed road culvert, they would need to be replaced, adding more to the rising cost of the R-5000 project.
The design has also progressed to include an overpass at 107 with on- and off- ramps which, according to Steve Williams, Division Design Construction engineer, since the campus sits on a hillside, building an elevated interchange would be cheaper because there would be less excavation.
The increased price of the road is only one aspect of the issue however. Some in Jackson County have voiced concern about the need for an interchange being a ploy by NCDOT officials.
“I don't know how I feel about the Southern Loop, but I do think it played in to it,” said Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Commissioners.
The Southern Loop would be a five-mile, four-lane highway that would be built on the south side of Sylva connecting N.C. 107 to U.S. 23-74, serving as a by-pass of the highly commercial area which could end up hurting some businesses along the corridor, but could theoretically whittle away at the issue of congestion in Sylva.
In response to the assumption, Setzer stated, “The interchange on the NC 107 side has nothing to do with the Southern Loop. Our design consultant recommended a bridge over NC 107 to avoid a large amount of earthwork to save money. NCDOT liked the concept because an at-grade intersection was going to be less safe and create additional delay to NC 107.”
Regardless of the various sides and approaches to the issue, it seems as though Southwestern Community College will finally get their second entrance some 19 years after the need first came to light. On Dec. 4, the Department of Transportation allocated $15.9 million to build the road. According to Design Manager Brian Burch, the project is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2016.
“I think it is the biggest waste of money in Jackson County history,” Debnam stated. “It's just funny. The money spent on that project could have been spent in other ways to help the community.”