The road less traveledWritten by Caitlin Bowling
The question ‘which way to Cherokee?’ continues bedeviling the state transportation department, which has been caught in a tug-of-war between Jackson County and Maggie Valley over who deserves a sign pointing the “right” way to Cherokee.
Maggie Valley currently holds title to the sole directional sign pointing motorists to Cherokee via U.S. 19 and over Soco Gap — and would like to keep it that way.
“We are all for helping promote Jackson County, but not at the expense of Maggie Valley,” said Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone.
The N.C. Department of Transportation is “leaning toward” posting a sign indicating that there are in fact two routes to Cherokee — one through Maggie and one that continues on past Sylva.
But by posting another sign, the department of transportation would “take away from one and give to another,” said Alderman Mike Matthews. “There has not been enough information to say you should go this way versus this way.”
Jackson County officials, meanwhile, have lobbied for the second sign, pointing out that the four-lane highway going past Sylva is actually safer and more user friendly than the route through Maggie. The tribe has expressed a desire for a second sign.
“They feel like the two-lane road over Soco is hazardous,” said Reuben Moore, a DOT official who works in the regional office in Sylva.
But DeSimone questioned Jackson’s true motive.
“Obviously, Jackson County did not bring this up because they were concerned for public welfare,” DeSimone said.
Maggie Valley could win out, however, as the DOT has yet to find a place to put the new sign and has not settled on concise wording.
Safety and travel time
Moore updated the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen on the status of the sign issue at a town meeting last week.
If the DOT decides to allow a new sign, it would be placed by May before the beginning of the tourist season.
But, posting a new sign faces several obstacles, including where to place it.
“It takes about a mile of signage to properly sign an exit,” Moore said. But the roadside leading up to the Maggie exit is already cluttered with signage.
DOT has not settled on the appearance of the sign. It cannot simply put two dueling arrows on a sign pointing this way or that way to Cherokee.
“That is strictly against policy,” Moore said.
The DOT has discussed making a sign with the words Cherokee spanning the top half of the sign and the mileage for both routes below it: U.S. 74 at 37 miles and U.S. 19 at 24 miles.
Although the route through Maggie is shorter distance-wise, a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken.
“We found that the travel time was very nearly the same,” Moore said.
Initially, Moore wanted the sign to specify that the travel time was about the same no matter which route is taken, but DOT vetoed the idea because traffic or accidents could delay travel along one of the roads.
The department only test-drove the routes three times during the late fall and winter. The times do not account for increased traffic during the summer and early fall months when tourists flood the area. Get stuck behind a slow moving Winnebago, and the trip through Soco Gap could be a grueling one.
The review of both routes showed that the crash rate on U.S. 19 is 10 percent higher.
Alderman Mike Matthews said that the two roads are incomparable when it comes to wrecks because U.S. 19 runs through a town where cars are often slowing down or speeding up and pulling in or out of parking lots. The U.S. 441 route, however, is a four-lane divided highway.
“I don’t even see how that could be compared,” Matthews said.
Maggie Valley officials said they want “overwhelming, definitive information” showing that the road through Jackson County is safer.
Does DOT consider U.S. 19 to be safe, Matthews asked?
“Absolutely,” Moore responded.
Aldermen Saralyn Price asked Moore pointblank which road would he take if it was snowing and he was in Lake Junaluska.
“I wouldn’t be out,” Moore said.
The Board of Aldermen argued that the DOT has not provided any information that would validate a decision to post a new directional sign.
“I have not heard anything definite about (U.S. 441) being safer,” DeSimone said.
Capturing tourism dollars
Maggie Valley and Jackson County each hope to attract a portion of the 3.5 million people who visit the casino in Cherokee each year.
The idea that Maggie Valley will lose business should an alternative route be posted “presupposes that people are going to do what the signs tell them to do,” Moore said.
Jackson County commissioners haven’t been shy about their desires to funnel tourism traffic through that county. Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten and the five county commissioners expressed surprise last week that their request for a sign had triggered uproars in Maggie Valley.
As they hammered out possible designs for a new welcome sign at the county line, Commissioner Doug Cody joked that they should add to Jackson County’s fantasy sign: “This is the best route to Cherokee.”
A decision will be made based on safety and the speed of traffic, assured Moore, not based on which route is more scenic or needs more business.
According to Jackson County Travel and Tourism, visitors have said that they prefer to take U.S. 441 to Cherokee. But, Moore said he can’t confirm whether that is true.