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Wednesday, 20 April 2011 20:28

Recession makes McCoy Bridge rehab an even better idea

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Governments at all levels and all across the nation are broke. At every county courthouse and state house, money taken in from taxes and fees can’t match the spending elected officials have become accustomed to. As they say in literature, a reckoning is coming. Over the next several years, the relationship between taxpayers and our government will undergo a fundamental shift.

It’s a pendulum swing, similar to what we experienced with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Many of us won’t like the consequences, and so we’ll write opinion pieces or letters to the editor, or blog, or protest in the streets, and finally elect folks who will do our bidding. That’s the way it works.

As I was reading about local unrest toward government spending, I got an email form Doug Woodward about the McCoy Bridge in Macon County. You can see his thoughts in our letters section.

Woodward and his neighbors are up in arms about a bridge. I wrote about that bridge controversy nine years ago, and at that time my argument did not focus on the monetary cost of rehabilitating a bridge versus building a new one. Everyone had money back then, and building around the mountains was booming. No, I worried about the cultural and symbolic value of the old bridge to the community it served.

Today we can include the fiscal argument. If it is cheaper to rehab the old bridge and give the community what it wants, then just do it. It makes sense on every level.

Anyway, here’s a portion of that column from 2002 that Woodward asked us to re-print prior to the April 25 public hearing that could decide the fate of the bridge:

Bridges have a unique symbolism in literature and in real life. At their best they provide a thread of connectedness, while at other times they highlight the distance and depth of opposing views.

In Macon County, the McCoy Bridge crossing the Little Tennessee River just off N.C. 28 is bearing the burden of exposing how government and communities can sometimes work against each other. In this case, the individual entities involved don’t harbor ill will toward the other. The real underlying problem is that the government units — the county and the state — don’t have the kind of planning in place to adequately deal with the situation that has arisen.

When that occurs, the government entities and the private citizens must share in the blame. Whether you believe it or not, in this country private citizens still determine what kind of government leaders they will have, and therefore share in whatever decisions are made. As we learn to grapple with the modern challenges of growth, sprawl and protecting the environment, this little bridge may provide an example of how to work together to meet common goals.

The McCoy Bridge is a one-lane vehicular truss bridge, the last one in Macon County. Vehicles traveling in opposite directions between the highway and Rose Creek Road must wait for cars coming across the bridge before they can pass. There is no room for zooming, two-way traffic moving at dangerous speeds. Residents in the Oak Grove community of northern Macon County want it to remain that way.

… The bridge serves a rural community a few miles outside of Franklin. As it is, massive, sprawling development on the opposite side of the river — and across the bridge — would be difficult. Many of those who might see the development potential of that mountain real estate would refrain because access is limited by the bridge. It serves as a kind of barrier, not natural, of course, but one that was built in 1939.

The state Department of Transportation, however, has determined that the bridge needs work. Engineers have deemed it functionally obsolete and unable to handle future traffic demands. Its structural integrity is suspect, they say.

…. There is also a very significant cultural and historical side to this issue. Throughout these mountains we are building roads and opening up rural areas for development instead of tackling the more difficult issue of protecting these lands and containing development in areas where infrastructure already exists. The DOT is right that the bridge is probably in dire need of some engineering work. A Ford Excursion certainly puts more stress on an old bridge than a 1945 Dodge did.

The trouble is that the DOT mandate to keep roads and bridges safe also enables them to carry more traffic, makes them wider, and makes them safer for higher speeds. Those attributes, though, are not necessarily good things for the community that uses the road — or the bridge in this case — that is being “improved.” And what we must remember is that the bridge was built to serve the community.

It’s easy to guess what will happen in this unique area of Macon County in the future if local and state leaders — along with private citizens — don’t wrestle with issues like this and get on the same page. Roads will be widened and curves will be straightened. Houses will be built. Schools will be needed in the outlying areas, solid waste will have to hauled somewhere, septic tanks or sewer lines, along with other infrastructure, will need to be built. Taxes will go up to meet these needs. The rural countryside five miles outside of Franklin will become just another suburb. A one-lane truss bridge will not be able to handle the traffic.

The McCoy Bridge dilemma serves as an example of the challenges facing these mountains. Residents who value our rural countryside have to make sure they put the leaders in place who have the same values, not those who will pave over paradise instead of working for a better alternative. Time is running out.

That warning from 2002 didn’t foresee the housing bubble burst and the ensuing recession. The dizzying pace of construction in the mountains has ground to a halt. So now we do have time to take stock of what’s important and work to save it. And we have to be more careful with every tax dollar that is spent.

In this case, we stand with the Woodward and the residents who live in this community — rehab the historic bridge and make it a showpiece instead of building a concrete slab spanning the Little Tennessee river.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

 

Public hearing

The N.C. Department of Transportation will hold a public hearing on Monday, April 25, regarding alternatives for replacing the McCoy Bridge. The hearing will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Cowee Elementary School gymnasium. It will be a question-and-answer session with transportation officials. Maps displaying the bridge replacement alternatives will be available prior to the public hearing from 5 to 6 p.m.

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