Cullowhee traffic woes deserve attention

To the Editor:

Had I been a student at Western Carolina Teachers College (WCTC) in the late 1920s, I might have taken a walk down the hill from my dorm on the “old campus,” down the road to the campus entrance on Highway 107, on down past Brown’s Store,  Battle’s Grocery (subsequently the Village Store), which also housed the Cullowhee Post Office, on to what is now  Monteith Gap Road, at that time a dirt road running parallel to the railroad track that ran parallel to the Tuckaseigee River. 

Pushing on, I would have crossed a rickety bridge across Cullowhee Creek and, if continuing along the railroad, merged onto another dirt road, which is now Ledbetter Road. After some 200 yards, I would have come upon a field with players engaged in various games. In fact, I would have arrived at what was then WCTC’s athletic field.

To bring a part of this history full circle, had college students of the mid-1970s era traced the route the student of the 1920s took,  they would have walked along paved roads, seen no trace of the railroad tracks, but would have felt safer crossing the sturdier bridge that had been built across Cullowhee Creek. Proceeding along Ledbetter Road, they would have observed that the former athletic field had now become a small mobile home park, River Park.

Fast forward to today when pedestrians, cyclists, or anyone picking up litter along Ledbetter Road literally take their lives in their hands due to the large volume of traffic moving along this road, some travelling at double the posted speed limit, some drivers being distracted by texting or cell phone use, thereby drifting into the opposing lane of traffic. All of these circumstances are made much more hazardous due to an imposing guard rail about two feet from the edge of the roadway that can trap any potential victim — pedestrian or motorist — attempting to take evasive action.

Having wandered dream-like through the last number of decades, let me describe the Ledbetter Road of today: During the last decade, the small mobile home park that was once the athletic field of the college has now more than tripled in capacity with three entrances onto Ledbetter Road, all three near or in dangerous curves. And within the last six or so years, we have seen built on Ledbetter Road three large housing complexes: University Suites, Maples Apartments and Cullowhee Villas, altogether accommodating a total of 381 bedrooms. 

Ledbetter Road, prior to the building of these three complexes, already served as the ingress/egress for Sleepy Hollow Cottages, the 46-home University Heights subdivision, and various other single- and multi-family homes in the vicinity of where Ledbetter Road dead ends. We now have being planned (the land currently is being cleared) the Western Carolina Apartments complex that is to have an additional 490 bedrooms.

Monteith Gap Road leads to another housing complex, various apartments and other single- and multi-family homes, as well as the university’s landfill.  This road ends near the acreage recently purchased for one of the end-point anchors to the Greenway.

There is also a second housing complex being considered for South Painter Road opposite the current Community Garden site, and a bed and breakfast planned for Monteith Gap Road between the Laundromat and the Cullowhee Creek bridge. These come when the university is considering the discontinuance of the off-campus shuttle bus service, and the fall opening of “The Pub” at the former Papa Pizza/Hardies building.

With the impending increase in the volume of traffic, we have circulated a petition signed by sixty-four of the occupants of all but four of the homes of our subdivision asking that DOT address several safety issues. Among these are: widening the lanes, leveling and resurfacing, constructing a sidewalk, installing guard rails where the road parallels the river closely, making provision for bicycle traffic, implementing a reduction in speed limits, installing rumble strips to both slow the traffic and keep traffic from crossing the center line into the opposing lane, and installing additional signage warning of the intersections to these soon-to-be five housing complexes.

In addition to compiling the petition which was addressed to Mr. Joel Setzer, Fourteenth Division Engineer, we sent copies to Mr. Jonathan Woodard, District Engineer for the six westernmost counties of which Jackson is one; Mr. Jack Debnam, Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners; Mr. Chuck Wooten, County Manager; and Mr. Gerald Green, County Planner.  We followed up by meeting with Mr. Woodard for additional discussion and exploration.  

During this discussion Mr. Woodard noted that Jackson County is part of the Southwestern Rural Planning Organization (SWRPO), which has a role in ranking potential transportation projects. The DOT Fourteenth Division Office in Sylva also has a role in ranking projects for this area.  Mr. Woodard then emphasized that the RPO ranking is based largely on the needs expressed by local government officials.  

Woodard assured us that DOT will share our concerns with Jackson County officials and the SWRPO, and that his office intends to submit a request to improve these roads  in the next project ranking cycle that is scheduled to begin in January 2014.

So, in conclusion, our work is ongoing as we attempt to bring our concerns to the attention of those who are in position to effect change. We pledge a cooperative effort as we continue to move along this path.

Ralph Willis


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