The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the National Park Service are offering up to a $500,000 incentive for early completion of landslide repairs to U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — indicating both entities’ concerns about the road closure’s effects on Cherokee’s economy.
Eve Boatright isn’t prepared to openly criticize motorists speeding past her bookshop along U.S. 23/441 south of Franklin. The British transplant has a keen sense of humor, and recognizes those criticized could, in turn, question her ability to drive on the right side of the road — literally.
Boatright, however, does believe the traffic flow along U.S. 441 seems too fast for such a heavily used traffic corridor.
“When you are right on it like this, you see people don’t slow even when it’s raining,” said Boatright, who represents the second half of the store’s name, Millie and Eve’s Used Book Store. “But, location wise, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
She means it. When the bookstore was forced by rising rent to change locations this month, the two business partners sought and found another storefront a couple miles closer to Franklin on U.S. 23/441. They didn’t want to kiss goodbye to the incredible amount of pass-by traffic, and subsequent drop-ins, this highway provides.
U.S. 23/441 is locally known as the Georgia Road. It’s so dubbed because the five-lane highway connects North Carolina and Georgia. This 10-mile or so stretch of road has experienced explosive growth since representatives from the two states met at the connecting line in the mid 1990s for a highway-ribbon cutting. That growth, and the corresponding increase in traffic, doesn’t pass un-remarked in a proposed comprehensive transportation plan for Macon County.
“While congestion is not yet an issue, mobility is compromised by the numerous driveway cuts, unsignalized left turns and density of traffic signals,” the proposed plan notes. “A look at this stretch of US 23/441 as a whole reveals 73 crashes took place from June 1, 2007 to May 31, 2010. The majority of these were ‘rear end’ or ‘left turn’ accident types.”
When the committee putting together the plan asked residents their opinions, “respondents expressed the problems along U.S. 23-441 using the following terminology: bottleneck, too many red lights, too many access roads, congested, unsafe, too many people trying to turn, too many lanes, it sets people up for accidents, not easy to maneuver, consider a median, middle turn lane is too dangerous, extremely dangerous, terrible, stop and go, crazy, disaster, gridlock, and ingress and egress are tragedies waiting to happen.”
“It’s a horror,” said Eric Hendrix, a Macon County resident who operates Eric’s Fresh Fish Market in Sylva, and who plans next month to open a second fish market in Franklin. “U.S. 441 South is what Sylva does not want N.C. 107 to become.”
Jackson County residents are embroiled in a debate about how or whether to “fix” N.C. 107 from Sylva to Western Carolina University. One option the state proposed was to build a bypass around the problem, prompting opponents to rally for “smart” roads versus new ones.
A bypass solution around U.S. 441 certainly isn’t on the horizon for Macon County. Instead, the proposed traffic plan suggests redesigning this section of road to a boulevard concept by removing the center turn lane and adding a median. Instead of making left-turns across lanes of oncoming traffic, motorists would make U-turns at stoplights to access businesses on the other side of the road.
Additionally, the transportation committee said there is local support for the plan, called a “super-street” design. The traffic pattern is currently all the rage since N.C. State University released a major study showing super-streets result in dual reductions of travel time and accidents.
The town of Waynesville has endorsed a similar redesign of its busiest thoroughfare, Russ Avenue, as a boulevard concept. Smart road advocates in Sylva want to see similar treatment of N.C. 107.
MaAron Cabe of The Gallery of Gems and Minerals along U.S. 23/441 did his own traffic count once, part of an effort to get a stoplight installed at a nearby intersection following a bad wreck. He tallied 20,000 cars a day.
Cabe didn’t get the stoplight. But he remains adamant that safety improvements near the store are badly needed. A popular movie theater is nearby, and there are several wrecks a year, he said.
The corridor is also home to many restaurants, Lowe’s Home Improvement, The UPS Store, the Fun Factory, the Macon County Fairgrounds, the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts. And, via spur roads, K-Mart, Southwestern Community College the Macon County Public Library and more.
Ryan Sherby, a transportation planner with the Southwestern Development Commission, a regional agency for the state’s seven westernmost counties, said he hopes people take time to comment on the proposal.
“It helps the committee to hear from the public,” Sherby said. “Everything we’ve heard so far has been on Needmore Road, and we’d like for people to look at the county as a whole.”
Needmore Road, a reference to a 3.3-mile gravel portion of road in Macon and Swain counties that the state has proposed paving and widening, isn’t actually contained in the plan. It’s too far along in the process. But, as is the case in Jackson County with the proposed bypass around N.C. 107, Needmore Road in Macon County has dominated most discussions here when it comes to transportation.
Sherby said the timetable calls for the committee to review the comments, and then to hammer-out a final version of the plan. It could be in front of county commissioners for consideration as soon as the June or July meetings, he said.
Comment will be taken from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 24 at Franklin’s town hall.
The suggested Comprehensive Transportation Plan tackles many road issues in Macon County. An adopted plan will give Macon County a leg-up on getting road projects prioritized with the N.C. Department of Transportation, which awards extra points (10 to be exact) when considering suggested improvements.
View the plan at: www.regiona.org/Macon_CTP.htm