News Headlines

fr streetsignsHate the name of your street? In Haywood County, changing it shouldn’t be that hard.

Come up with a new name, make sure the name isn’t already taken by another street and get at least 65 percent of your neighbors to agree.

Nantahala-bound travelers will notice a suite of new, officially-sanctioned, brown roadside directional signs declaring they are on the right track to the renowned paddling Mecca — signs that rafting outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge hope will alleviate the problems caused by ineffectual GPS.

For those who know, driving to the Nantahala Gorge is simple. Just follow U.S. 74 past Bryson City and you’re there. But, for those who don’t, a.k.a. the tourists who visit Nantahala to raft, kayak or hike, the journey can be tricky.

Macon County leaders are at odds with the N.C. Department of Transportation over the placement, or lack thereof, of a stoplight at an intersection near Macon Middle School.

For two years, Macon County Sheriff’s Office deputies have been stationed at the intersection of Wells Grove and Clarks Chapel during peak traffic times when school is in session. Sheriff Robbie Holland said two deputies each day direct traffic in the morning as cars pour into and out of the school’s parking lot.

coverWaste, favoritism and possible fraud and corruption by state highway workers in Haywood County enriched a local contractor and cost state taxpayers, according to a sweeping investigation released late last week by the N.C. State Auditor’s Office.

Western mountain counties will have a new representative on the N.C. Department of Transportation board with the departure of long-time board member Conrad Burrell, who has stepped down from the powerful post after more than 11 years.

fr highlandsRepaving of the steep, windy, two-lane road from Franklin to Highlands has many merchants worried about whether this heavily tourism-dependant town will find itself choked off financially.

fr cullowheebridgeChris Pressley, a third-generation owner of the 65-year-old Cullowhee Automotive Service, has been on edge since learning about plans for a new bridge in the Cullowhee community.

The Lowe’s interchange in Haywood County will finally get re-structured but not for a couple more years.

N.C. Department of Transportation plans to start reconstructing the exit onto N.C. 209 and leading to Paragon Parkway and Hospital Drive in summer 2014.

“The geometry of the exit right now is extremely confusing, and it’s tight,” said Brian Burch, a construction engineer with DOT.

Prep work has already begun on the estimated $24-million project. The Lowe’s side of the interchange won’t change much — the work is focused on the side of Taco Bell and Shoney’s.

DOT will purchase about five homes and 10 businesses that currently stand in the way of its construction. Of the total project cost, the department will spend about $9 million alone to purchase the right of way. Among them are the Burger King, Taco Bell, the Shell station, Shoney’s and David’s Home Entertainment.

“The intersection is confusing; there is no question,” said David Sutton, owner of David’s Home Entertainment. “I don’t want to have to relocate … (but) it needs to be done.”

Sutton did not know how much he would get from DOT for his business and land.

Once work begins, it will be another two to three years before its completed because the crew must work in phases to ensure that people have access to remaining businesses and can pass through the area with relative ease. DOT must also be conscious of students traveling to and from Tuscola High School each day, Burch said. It’s also the major interchange near MedWest-Haywood hospital and numerous doctor’s practices, the county’s Department of Social Services, and the entrance to Lake Junaluska.

“There is always the concern of access,” Burch said. “How is my routine going to be impacted?”

But, no matter how well thought-out the plan is, there will inevitably be delays.

“People have to be patient,” Burch said.

The exit has been on DOT’s to-do list for years because of its odd configuration, congestion and proneness to accidents. Some call the interchange “malfunction junction.”

The four-lane highway was built in the 1960s, blazing the first four-lane road to Waynesville. Roads were built differently then from today, said Reuben Moore, an DOT operations engineer.

“Things like that are not the way we are doing it when we do it today,” Moore said, citing the confusing manner in which exit and adjoining intersections were laid out.

 

Changes to the Interchange

While certain portions of the exit and its surrounding interchanges will remain the same, several key changes will make its more user friendly.

1: The main part of the project is a new on-ramp heading toward Waynesville. It will be longer, giving vehicles more time to gain speed before merging.

2: The access road to Taco Bell and the on-ramp heading toward Waynesville are too close together now and will be moved farther apart. With the current configuration, it can be difficult to tell which is the access road and which is the on-ramp for the highway.

3: Paragon Parkway will be realigned — moved over to sit on top of where Shoney’s is now. It will be aligned in an intersection with the on-ramp heading toward Waynesville.

4: Crabtree Road, which runs underneath U.S. 74, will be widened. A new train trestle will be installed to accommodate the wider road that passes under it.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is taking matters into its own hands in the tug-of-war over the best route to Cherokee.

A tribe-purchased billboard on Interstate 40, heading west of Asheville, will soon tout two possible routes to Cherokee. Official highway signs direct Cherokee-bound traffic through Maggie Valley, but both Cherokee and Jackson County leaders had asked the state highway department to change the sign, touching off a dispute between Maggie and Jackson County, both hoping to lay claim to passing tourists en route to Cherokee.

The DOT rejected the request to change the official signs, prompting the tribe to put up its own billboard noting that U.S. 74 is also a direct route to Cherokee. The billboard will target drivers coming from the east, according to Robert Jumper, head of Cherokee Travel and Tourism. The new billboard is in production now, and Jumper expected it to be on I-40 within the next week or so.

Jumper said the tribe hears multiple complaints from motorists at the Cherokee welcome center who have been surprised, and sometimes scared, by the winding two-lane route thru Maggie Valley and over Soco Gap. Some also complain of getting stuck behind slower vehicles because there are no passing lanes, Jumper said.

U.S. 74 through Jackson County, by contrast, is a four-lane highway.

“This is for the benefit of everybody,” Jumper said. “Cherokee is going to provide a billboard that provides the customer with a choice.”

The new billboard will list both options, reading “easy access to Cherokee via U.S. 74 or U.S. 19.”

Jumper said the billboard’s message would ultimately benefit Maggie Valley, too, because some motorists now are frustrated by the trip through the small town on U.S. 19, and that could potentially repel them from wanting to go that way next time. This way, Jumper said somewhat ingeniously, the tribe can redirect those visitors looking for a more “scenic route” on their return trip, and they’ll have a more positive impression of the small Haywood County town because they’ll know what to expect on the two-lane highway.

More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After receiving some poor tourism-related numbers last year, Jackson leaders went hunting for a method to entice more visitors to the county, hence the sign request.

Cherokee quickly jumped on the sign bandwagon, sending letters of support for a new sign from the chief and the tourism office.

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the state DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route than for U.S. 74.

DOT turned down the request for a new sign citing safety concerns, as in the possibility of more wrecks as motorists attempted to puzzle out a sign offering dueling routes. Cherokee’s billboard will be bigger than a standard highway sign, allowing the information to be read clearly, and will be placed on I-40, giving people plenty of time to decide which route to take rather than a highway sign giving only a split second of decision time before the exit.

Maggie Valley has emerged victorious in an ongoing tug-of-war with Jackson County over who can rightfully lay claim to tourists en route to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The N.C. Department of Transportation rejected a request from Jackson County leaders that a new highway sign direct Cherokee-bound travelers past their own doorstep instead of through Maggie. Instead the current sign, which takes motorists through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19, will remain the lone highway marker pointing the way to Cherokee for tourists coming off Interstate 40.

Cherokee leaders had sided with Jackson County and joined the push for a second sign that would direct visitors to take the four-lane Smoky Mountain expressway instead of the curvy two-lane road over Soco Gap. More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Maggie Valley leaders were happy to hear that DOT decided to maintain the status quo.

“It was certainly good news,” said Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone. “It didn’t seem there was any compelling reason to change it.”

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route than for U.S. 74.

“I am glad that they did come to the decision that they did,” said Maggie Alderman Phil Aldridge.

Leaders in Haywood County and in Maggie sent letters to the DOT asking them to deny Jackson County’s request, saying that the sign simply took from one and gave to another. The sign would take business and visitors away from an already struggling Maggie Valley, opponents of the new sign said.

“It definitely would have had an impact,” DeSimone said.

DOT, however, also denied Haywood County leaders’ apparent tongue-in-cheek request that it install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would inform travelers from the Atlanta area that they could reach Cherokee by going up and around through Waynesville and Maggie Valley. Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes some 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Jackson County leaders took the news about no-new-directional sign on U.S. 74 in diplomatic fashion.

“I’m not surprised with the final decision,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “It seems our request did not fit within their policies.”

Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said the county would not argue with the DOT regarding its decision.

“We’re OK with it,” Debnam said. “I just don’t think we’re going to qualify for a sign, and that’s just one of the battles you don’t pick. You’ve just got to let it go sometimes.”

The cost of a new sign had been estimated at about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempted to convey about the two dueling routes.

In a letter sent to everyone involved earlier this month, DOT Division Engineer Joel Setzer noted that the agency’s focus “was to look primarily at traffic safety, travel time and travel distance” along U.S. 74 and U.S. 19 when considering the request. Other factors considered were traffic crashes, routing by mapping services and average winter weather conditions along both routes.

DOT tried to craft a highway sign that would include both routes, listing things such as mileage, drive time and road conditions for each. But, that proved problematic.

“NCDOT recognized that the request (for a second sign) was reasonable and made sense but struggled with how a sign or series of signs could effectively communicate to high speed traffic that this choice was available,” the letter stated.

This difficulty, the DOT letter continued, “is the very reason that it is against policy.”

“To a motorist unfamiliar with the area, seeing two choices for one destination would cause confusion, which could create a dangerous situation in a high speed highway environment,” the letter stated.

The DOT also noted that the current sign meets state rules on sign placement because the U.S. 19 route is 11 miles shorter than traveling U.S. 74 to Cherokee.

The agency, in rejecting Haywood County leaders’ request for a sign in Dillsboro rerouting Cherokee traffic their way, said what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: the route proposed is longer and therefore violated state policies for road signs.

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