By Dave Russell
To paraphrase an old song, the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business project is like a steam locomotive rolling down the track. It’s gone and ain’t nothing going to bring it back.
“We would not do anything to stop the project,” N.C. Department of Transportation Engineer Brian Burch said.
That means opponents’ ability to scuttle construction plans are virtually nonexistant. Stopping the project would require opponents to win the combined agreements of the town of Sylva, regional planning group Southwestern Commission and the N.C. Board of Transportation.
All three support the remodeling of Sylva’s commercial corridor.
Funding for the project was in question at one point, Burch said.
“DOT, with the hurricanes and the MAP Act last year, experienced some cash shortfall that has required us to suspend work on some projects and R-5600 was on that list,” he said. “But we are requesting N.C. Build Bond monies for this project and that has allowed us to continue to work on it. It removed it from the suspension list. Our expectation is that nothing would stop this project from occurring.”
Three candidates in the recent Sylva town board race campaigned in part on stopping R-5600. All three were defeated, one losing by a coin toss.
“If there were a change on the Sylva town board, they could pass resolutions or request that this project be stopped or removed from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, but they would not have sole authority to stop the project,” Burch said.
The resolution would then go to Southwestern Rural Planning Organization Transportation Advisory Committee, part of the Southwestern Commission, who could suspend it and rescind support, he said.
“Then it would go the N.C. Board of Transportation, and they would have to agree to remove it from the STIP,” Burch said. “Those three would all have to agree to stop the project.”
Southwestern Commission is made up of area governments. Jackson County and each municipality have a seat on the Transportation Advisory Committee.
“In the case of R-5600, we did both agree that it was a priority for the DOT and the Southwestern Commission RPO,” Burch said. “To stop it, we’d both have to agree that it is not a project we would support.”
Projects reach a sort of tipping point of no return, Burch said.
“Once you’ve invested a lot of funds in developing a project and acquiring the rights of way and things of that nature, it’s really a misuse of state funds and our resources to at that point say ‘Well, we’ve got all the right of way, we’ve got these properties, we’ve relocated individuals and now we’re not going to follow through on the project,’” Burch said.
Road projects not favored by a community have been stopped, however.
“It happened on the Balfour Parkway in Henderson County, but we stopped it early in the process,” Burch said. “We went to the public workshop and there was a lot of opposition and then a few months later the local government said they would no longer support it.”
The Henderson County Board of Commissioners withdrew their support and voted against that project.
“Then they went to the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization in that case, and they rescinded their support and then the Board of Transportation did the same,” Burch said. “We’d acquired no rights of way, developed no plans, we just had some conceptual drawings on a map, kind of like where we were on R-5600 about three years ago.”
There will be a time when stopping the project is completely impossible, he said.
“The only time that the department reaches a point to where a project cannot be stopped is once we have it under contract,” he said. “Once we’ve acquired the right of way and let a contract, at that point we are contractually obligated to pay that contractor.”
In an extreme circumstance, such as a major financial crisis or state government shutdown, a contract could be canceled, he said.