By Dave Russell
N.C. Department of Transportation Engineer Bryan Burch had a simple message for Sylva last week: The time for talk about R-5600 is over. It’s time for action.
“Quite honestly, we have engaged the public and local governments for three-plus years,” he said at a Sept. 12 town board meeting. “We’ve had multiple workshops, more than any we’ve ever had on any project that I am familiar with in Division 14. The opportunity for public information or public comment has passed.”
R-5600 is NCDOT’s proposal for Sylva’s commercial corridor, N.C. 107, including the elimination of the center turn lane with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane added. Upgrades are slated for the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business intersection, and from U.S. 23 Business to Dillardtown Road and Municipal Drive, near the Sylva Fire Department. DOT’s preliminary estimate listed 55 businesses facing potential relocation, though that number is fluid.
“This was a project that was vetted through the local governments and followed the process, and at this point, NCDOT is in charge of this project,” Burch said. “We’re at the point now where we’re four and a half months away from starting to acquire the right-of-way on this project.”
NCDOT has started that process already, taking some advanced acquisitions, he said.
Burch sounded confident the current plans are the best they can be.
“We have looked at all alternatives, we have considered reducing lanes, reducing medians, we have looked at superstreet design, we’ve looked at conventional intersections, we’ve looked at realigning intersections,” he said. “We’ve got walls included in this design, we’ve looked at multi-modal aspects, so bicycles and pedestrian accommodations, all those things have been considered.
“Essentially, we’re at the point where we have to move forward with the engineering design that we have. We either move forward into right-of-way and construction, or we stop completely and essentially restart the process.”
R-5600, or its replacement, would be on hold for another 10 years if that happened, he said.
“This funded project would lose its funding and it would go back through the process,” he said. “In my estimation, you’re looking at a 10-year window before we could ever do anything to address the congestion and safety on 107, whether it be the bypass or something different.”
By the first of October, NCDOT would have plans that will show all the impacts, including utilities, he said.
“We’ve looked at it, we’ve engineered it, and from the department’s perspective, we’re ready to move forward, and those plans will be completed in the next four months,” he said.
Burch invited anyone who has questions about the project to come to the NCDOT office on Webster Road and talk to him or R-5600 senior project engineer Jeanette White.
“I’m speaking more to the people here tonight maybe more than I am the board – if you have questions, engage NCDOT,” he said. “We have the answers. We know where the impacts are currently and will know in October where all of the impacts are going to be. We know the costs, we know the data, we know why the lane widths are what they are.”
Board member Greg McPherson asked what an N.C. 107 construction project would look like in 10 years.
“I would expect it to be the same,” Burch said. “We’ve done traffic projections and they will increase. I would expect you to continue to have the safety concerns you have today.”
McPherson asked Burch if there were similar projects in Western North Carolina.
“We have a similar project in almost every county,” Burch said.
Like R-5600, a project on U.S. 23/441 (Georgia Road) in Franklin is a current five lane stretch of road changing to a four lane with a median, he said.
Mere minutes after the meeting, the administrator of the “Say No to the Road” Facebook page posted “Brian Burch said the time for public input and comment on the #r5600 project is over.”
“Seems any comments/input should never have a time limit,” replied Geraldine Collins. “Especially if its wrong for a community, city, town etc.”
“I think his appearance was probably a request from the town for a response to the last protest,” Jeff Sykes said. “It was well orchestrated. He said it would take a decade to get the money back on the table if the project did not move forward now.”
“If I recall the public meeting at SCC, they said these were ‘proposed’ plans,” Marybeth Druzbick said. “I don’t remember ever hearing ‘these are the only options’ or a choice on the survey for ‘none of the above.’ It was presented as a ‘Here’s what we (NCDOT) are thinking now ... which of our ideas do you like best?’ I was never under the impression, stated or implied, that we as a community were signing off on a final plan.”