The road ends here
If Congressman Charles Taylor is defeated in two weeks, it could spell the end of plans to build a road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Bryson City.
Taylor has championed the so-called North Shore Road in Congress. Taylor’s opponent, Heath Shuler, is in the opposite camp. H advocates a cash settlement for Swain County in lieu of building the long-promised road.
Those on both sides of the issue say the future of the North Shore Road is riding on the outcome of the race.
“It will make it happen or stop it,” said David Monteith, an advocate of the North Shore Road. “Taylor is for it and Shuler’s against it.”
With Taylor gone, presumably there would be no one left in Congress pushing for the road. Even with the support of Taylor, an eight-term Republican who sits on the Appropriations Committee, the road is not a sure thing.
Opponents of the road say it won’t be built regardless of who is in Congress. It’s got a $600 million price tag and is rich fodder for a host environmental lawsuits that would tie it up in court for years. But it is critical to get Taylor out of the way so the real work can begin on getting after a cash settlement for Swain County, they said.
“Thoughtful, prudent people realize the road would never be built,” said Luke Hyde, an attorney in Swain County and leader with the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, which advocates a cash settlement.
Even though Shuler — a Swain County native — would be a new congressman, Hyde said he would have a good shot at securing a cash settlement because it would finally get the issue off the federal government’s plate.
“There are a number of other people who favor a cash settlement who would be willing to work with a newly elected congressman,” Hyde said.
But Raleigh Grant, a road supporter with the North Shore Road Association, disagreed.
“Shuler won’t have no power at all up there,” Grant said. “Nancy Pelosi don’t give a flip about Heath Shuler. They just want Charles Taylor’s seat.”
Grant didn’t pass up the chance to compare Shuler’s potential future in Washington to his failed pro football career.
“He’s going to find out playing with the big boys is about like pro football, it’s not high school or college,” Grant said. “He’ll be out of his league.”
But at least with Shuler, there’s a chance of getting something instead of the status quo, which is nothing, said Claude Douthit of Swain County, a settlement supporter.
“We know that Charles Taylor will never get $600 million to build the North Shore Road,” Douthit said.
But given Taylor’s long-time support for the road, he would never switch allegiances and advocate for a cash settlement either.
“It’s time to try a new solution,” Douthit said. “We have a better chance of getting a cash settlement than anything else.”
Taylor has managed to get some money for the road, but construction has been deferred pending requisite environmental studies. Several years ago Taylor got $16 million in the federal highway budget to start construction. First, however, the National Park Service had to conduct an environmental analysis of the road’s impact. That process has taken four years so far and will burn through nearly $6 million of the money Taylor appropriated.
A rough draft of the environmental impact study was released in February of this year. The park was supposed to render an opinion in the rough draft on whether the road should be built. That’s according to park service protocol when issuing rough drafts of impact studies.
In this case, however, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park did not issue a recommendation. It got a waiver that allowed it to pass on this particularly hot button issue.
The park service is in a tight spot on the North Shore Road. For years the park service was opposed to the road. Taylor, however, is now the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the purse strings for the park service. This has put the park service in a politically sensitive predicament. If it rendered an opinion against the road, Taylor could have retaliated by withholding funding for other projects.
The park claims politics had nothing to do with the decision not to render an opinion.
“The press has inferred what may or may not have been the reasons why we do not have a preferred alternative at this stage,” Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson told the audience at a public hearing in February when the rough draft of the impact study was presented.
Ditmanson said the park deferred on an opinion because of significant new findings, namely the $600 million estimate for the cost of the road, that weren’t on the table during earlier rounds of public hearings.
“I didn’t think it was fair to make a decision based on numbers you — the public — have not heard before,” Ditmanson said at the hearing. “We want to ensure all voices are heard.”
A final draft of the impact study — this one complete with a recommendation — was due out this month. It has been delayed, however. Some postulate the park service is putting off the decision pending the outcome of the election.
“That’s the only reason I can figure,” Douthit said. “How that environmental impact statement turns out depends on whether is Taylor re-elected.”
Grant agreed. He surmised the park service has been dragging its feet for quite some time trying to spend as much of the road money as possible on the study instead of the road.
Bob Miller, spokesperson with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the political environment is not a factor in the timing or eventual outcome of the opinion that will be rendered in the final impact study.
Instead, the delay in the final study is due to staffing changes within park service leadership, namely a new secretary of the Department of Interior and a new director of the National Park Service. Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson called the new director of the park service last week — her first day on the job — to talk to her about what needed to be done to get the final impact study out.
“There is no intent to delay because of the election,” Miller said. “It is just a matter of changes in the park service.”
The North Shore Road will likely be a factor on Election Day for Swain County voters in the Taylor-Shuler race.
“They’ll vote a whole lot on that issue here,” Douthit said.
In 2004, Taylor won Swain County by 204 votes — 2,621 versus 2,417. Douthit attributes Taylor’s win to the fact it coincided with the presidential election where voters turned out in support of President Bush, rather than a majority support in Swain County for Taylor’s position on the North Shore Road.
Road supporters claim Taylor’s win in Swain County two years ago does signal a majority support for the road. Grant said if Shuler does carry Swain County, it won’t be because people don’t support the road but rather that Shuler has local ties because he grew up in Swain County and led the high school football team to a state championship.
“People have football in their blood in Swain County,” Grant said.
Grant said that shouldn’t matter any more, though, because Shuler is bought and paid for by outside special interests, from the Sierra Club to California liberals.
Polls currently show Shuler is ahead by 8 points, with a 51 to 43 lead over Taylor. But Monteith said that when it comes to Election Day, Taylor will win, as he has every time. Taylor has the clout in Congress to do things to help Western North Carolina and people know that, Monteith said.
“Why would people stop that for somebody who can’t do nothing for several years? It would be stupid to cut your hand,” Monteith said.