A proposed four-lane highway through a mountainous region of Graham County has suffered a setback.
The N.C. Department of Transportation was nearing the final planning stages and hoped to start construction in a few years on what is commonly known as Corridor K. But the project has been sent back to the drawing board to consider whether a two-lane option could achieve the same purpose as a new four-lane highway.
The roadblock has come from the Army Corp of Engineers, which has to sign off on various environmental permits for the highway. The Corp ruled that the DOT did not properly consider all the alternatives, however. The Corps wrote in a letter to the DOT that “upgrading and improving existing two-lane roadways should be given full consideration as a practical alternative.”
The DOT was supposed to weigh the pros and cons of various options in an environmental analysis — as required by federal law for projects of this magnitude — but a two-lane highway relying partially on existing roads was not included in the 2008 study.
“A massive, four-lane highway through the mountains of this region is overkill, both in terms of the price tag and environmental harm. It’s great news the agencies are considering more reasonable alternatives,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville.
The idea for a four-lane highway through the counties west of Asheville had been on the books for decades and is mostly completed except for a missing link of 17 miles through Graham County — the most remote and rugged stretch.
At public hearing on the road last fall, critics of the new highway far outnumbered supporters. They cited the environmental impacts of a new four-lane highway and loss of historical rural character of Stecoah Valley.
But to supporters, the highway would bring sorely lacking economic development and benefit commerce in a county that currently has no four lanes roads leading in or out.
In North Carolina, the DOT’s own studies show that improvements to existing two-lane highways will easily handle the projected traffic for decades to come.
“They can’t ignore an alternative that costs half as much and avoids paving through an environmental treasure. Federal law is clear on this,” Gerken said.
Only 10 miles of the 17-mile missing link are currently in the planning stages — a section leading north out of Robbinsville over Stecoah Gap. The 10-mile section would cost $378 million and cut a more than half-mile long tunnel under the Snowbird Mountains, requiring excavation of 3 million cubic yards of rock.
“A new four-lane highway through sensitive mountain habitat would have unacceptably destructive impacts to wildlife habitat and water quality,” said Hugh Irwin with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition in Asheville. “Upgrading existing highways has always made the most sense.”
Chris North with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation cited the impacts to public lands, including trails, trout streams, hunting areas and campgrounds.
Environmental organizations are lauding the Army Corp for not rubber stamping the project but instead requiring due diligence by the DOT.
“We are grateful that the Corps has heard our voice and the voices of others in the region,” said Lucy Bartlett, chairman of WaysSouth, an organization solely focused on reducing the footprint of new highway construction in the mountains.
The DOT could still theoretically get approval for the four-lane highway after going back and analyzing the two-lane option if they can prove the two-lane would not do the job.