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The road ahead: Opt-In study concludes, Corridor K debate continues

coverAfter a year-long study capping off years of debate, the verdict is in on what’s next for the controversial Corridor K road project — sort of.

SEE ALSO: Dueling studies | Beyond the road

There were high hopes for the $2 million Opportunity Initiative Study at the outset: to find a clear answer for whether a four-lane highway through the remote mountains of Graham County is worth the enormous price tag and environmental damage, whether it is in fact wanted by the majority of people, and whether it will indeed be a magic bullet to bring the rural county into the 21st century economy.

But those answers remain nearly as elusive and subjective as they were before the study commenced — answers that had been bitterly fought and argued for over two decades already. 

The only consensus reached was that the region needs better road connectivity. But when it came to how exactly to achieve that goal, the waters got a little muddy. 

Graham is the only western county without a four-lane highway running through it, with winding country roads serving as the only ingress and egress. Corridor K critics suggest beefing up the existing two-lane road with wider shoulders, gentler curves and a few passing lanes — in lieu of a brand-new, four-lane, cross-country highway.

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“But those that don’t have access to those good, faster corridors tend to want improved infrastructure,” said Ryan Sherby, executive director of the Southwestern Commission. “It depends which county and which resident you’re talking to.”

There are two major stumbling blocks to Corridor K. One is the price tag. There’s not enough state and federal money currently budgeted to build the four-lane highway. The other is state and federal environmental permits, which have thus far been held up.

A survey included in the Opt-In study asked people whether they preferred a new four-lane highway or upgrades to existing two-lane roads — given the realities of funding and environmental hurdles.

•73 percent wanted to minimize environmental damage or build what’s possible within budget realities, even if that means building something smaller than the four-lane highway that the N.C. Department of Transportation wants.

•Only 27 percent wanted to vigorously pursue building a four-lane highway, even if funding isn’t certain. 

While the regional consensus favored smaller-scale road improvements, the desire of the people who would be most affected by the road — Graham County residents — reflected the opposite. 

“For a county like Graham that doesn’t have the existing infrastructure, you see a different perspective,” Sherby said. 

And that’s the premise behind Opt-In’s verdict: appoint a Corridor K task force. The Opt-In concluded a task force comprised of local governments, advocacy groups and civic leaders should  “advocate for the completion of North Carolina’s segments of Corridor K,” ensuring “timely implementation, secure funding, and fast track environmental review and design.”

It’s not surprising, considering the players that commissioned the Opt-In study in the first place. It was initiated by the Southwestern Commission, a consortium of town and county governments throughout the seven western counties. Local government leaders in the region have historically lined up behind Corridor K out of deference to Graham, and the idea of the task force to carry the Corridor K torch is in line with their the long-standing stance.


The backstory

What is Corridor K, and what makes it so controversial that it took a $2 million study to conclude that a task force should be formed to advocate for it — without even a solid definition of what “it” should be?

It all goes back to 1963, when the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission reported that the eastern mountains would never be able to develop economically until better routes of transportation replaced the narrow, winding roads that provided slow and sometimes hazardous travel corridors.

Two years later, the Appalachian Development Act was passed, authorizing construction of a 3,090-mile highway system through the Appalachians. Money was appropriated, and building commenced. Fifty years later, the Appalachians have a stable of sturdy highways that have punctured the impassable mountain passes and paved the way for industry, commerce and tourism. 

But not in Graham County. One of the most remote and topographically extreme regions of the Appalachians, Graham County has no hospital, no higher education, an unemployment rate that’s always well above the state average, a high poverty rate, low average household income and no four-lane roads. 

According to County Manager Greg Cable, it’s a cause and effect. Graham’s socioeconomic ills can be blamed on no four-lane highway.

“This is a debate that’s gone on for 60 years,” Cable said. “Quite honestly, a lot of folks who don’t live in Graham County, they don’t have a vested interest in Graham County, they’re opposed to any improvement in Graham County. 

“I’ve seen good friends die because they don’t have access to a hospital. We need a better highway system in Graham County,” he said.

Ambulance transport to a hospital in a neighboring county is too slow in the event of major trauma and medical emergencies, requiring a medical air lift. But helicopters can’t always land in bad weather.

“I’ve heard that over and over in Graham County,” Sherby said. “For our major medical emergencies you have a small window of opportunity to save that life. If weather’s good and you can get a helicopter in there, you have success.”

If the weather’s not good, not so much. 

All parties agree that there’s a clear need, but they don’t agree on a clear answer. Is it a bigger road? If so, what does “bigger” mean? Four lanes and a 40-foot median? Wider shoulders and climbing lanes on steep sections? Improvements to existing roads or a new path blazed across the mountainsides? 


Struggle for a definition

Which leads to the real question: What, exactly, is “Corridor K?” 

“Building of Corridor K can mean a lot of things depending on who you are asking,” said D.J. Gerken, managing attorney at the Southern Environmental Law center in Asheville. 

Corridor K refers to a rough route, more than anything, connecting Stecoah Valley and Robbinsville, but no one quite agrees on how it should wind up looking.

The DOT’s preferred solution is an 18-mile, four-lane highway with a 30-foot median that would provide seamless four-lane travel through Graham, a missing link the highway system between Bryson City to Andrews. To avoid crossing the Appalachian Trail, the DOT proposes to build a half-mile tunnel through the mountains, thus going under the A.T. for a crossing.

But for some people, that’s a solution that’s not a solution at all. 

“When you have a wide four-lane roadway designed for near-interstate speeds, it can’t follow the terrain as much as a somewhat more restrained and more realistic road footprint could,” Gerken said. “As a result, under DOT’s proposal it was just simply not an option not to climb up on any of the grades. They had to blast them. The environmental impacts increase exponentially under DOT’s one-size-fits-all vision for the project.”

In other words, Gerken said, while a narrower road can adapt to the contours of the rugged landscape rather naturally, a four-lane divided highway needs a wider berth than the mountain topography can give it. So, building the wider road means more blasting and more grading to create the space needed to construct it. And that means more disturbance, a huge swath in fact.. 

“If you build a road with a very large footprint, there isn’t that kind of space in this country,” said Melanie Mayes, executive director of WaysSouth. “There is in Stecoah Valley, but when you go to cross the mountains that space isn’t there. What you’re talking about are massive cuts in the mountainside.” 

Those cuts would hurt the water quality of streams running through the area, Mayes said, and they’d destroy habitat and connectivity between habitats for the wildlife that live there. 

“A lot of the impacts are going to be to public land,” Mayes said. “Those public lands are set up with the idea of preserving those lands for the future and to allow wildlife to have someplace to safely live. There are simply many species that can’t coexist next to major roads.”

WaysSouth, an organization that advocates for environmentally responsible transportation development in the Appalachian South, and N.C. Alliance for Transportation Reform are in the process of shopping around a resolution against the four-lane option to counties in the region.


High costs, shallow pockets

Roads are never cheap, but N.C. DOT’s preferred option would be about as un-cheap as you can get.

The full cost of a four-lane road traversing Graham County is $800 million.

DOT only has $280 million in the kitty, however, money that had accumulated in the Appalachian Development Highway System fund until Congress stopped adding to that pot in 2013.

The rest of the money would probably have to come from state or federal funding. Corridor K would have to compete with transportation projects from all over the state and country for dollars.

Convincing those that hold the purse strings to part with that kind of money for a road project in a county with a population of 9,000 could be a hard sell.

“We all are going to have to be realistic about what can be afforded,” Gerken said. “One way to make this project happen is to adjust the scale of it to something that can fit Graham County’s very real transportation needs but isn’t the same as a freeway through an urban area.”

Brian Burch, division construction engineer with the DOT’s office in Sylva, admits securing full funding won’t be an easy road forward, but he doesn’t think WNC has to give up on the idea before it gets off the ground.

“We have to remain hopeful if this is a project the region wants and desires to have — and it appears it is — we have to be hopeful we can find the funding,” Burch said.

For now, DOT is only pursuing part of Corridor K. The full 18-mile highway is divided in two sections — with Robbinsville more or less in the center.

The first section DOT wants to tackle comes in to Robbinsville from the north. It would cost about $378 million, with a tunnel under the Appalachian Trail accounting for $200 million of that.

The second section connects with Robbinsville from the south — but that isn’t even in the planning stages yet, let alone funding secured. And without this section, the goal of a four-lane highway all the way through Graham County wouldn’t be realized. It’s a minimum of 30 years out.

“From a pragmatic perspective you have to wonder why they aren’t pushing for something that will happen a lot faster and is also affordable,” Mayes said. 

But affordability is relative, say Corridor K proponents: it all depends on who you can get on your side. And anyway, it’s best to start with the best-case-scenario and go down from there if necessary. 

“Right now it’s set up a four-lane road with a 40-foot divide in the median,” Cable said. “We’re not saying it has to be that way. We’re going to put it in the plan that’s the way it is because that’s the way it’s already been, but we’re willing to come to the table and discuss ways to do that.”


Prioritizing the wish list

But, four-lane opponents ask, is a new road really the best way to spend $800 million anyway? 

“I think these folks have the idea that if they build this four-lane highway that all of their problems are going to be solved, that suddenly there’s going to be manufacturing in the area,” Mayes said. “But anyone who has been around for the last 20 or 30 years knows that most manufacturing is in China, and that’s not going to change. It’s just being set up as an argument about a four-lane or else. I think that’s a false equivalency.”

Graham County is still smarting after its largest employer, Stanley Furniture, closed down its Robbinsville plant in April. The plant had employed 400 people, a large proportion of the workforce in a county of 9,000 people and an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent as of March.

The company’s message is that the plant closed because it wasn’t making enough revenue, but Cable can’t help but think that things might have been different had the transportation situation been better. 

The Opt-In study, though, didn’t look at transportation in isolation. It looked at the Corridor K issue in connection with all the other issues and innovations that could have an effect on WNC’s future, including what kinds of businesses might find the perfect home here in the mountains. 

“We think that tourism development obviously fits in there, but also small technology companies. We think can complement those sectors as well, and small advanced manufacturing, which is alive and well in a couple of our counties in our region,” Sherby said, mentioning companies such as ConMet and Moog Components Group. 

To attract those kinds of companies, Sherby said, we’ll have to pay attention to a whole mess of amenities that have nothing to do with asphalt.

“That CEO and their spouse or their family will likely be a tourist before they’ll ever think about relocating their company here,” Sherby said. “The vibrancy of that downtown tends to be the face of the region.”

The Graham Revitalization Economic Action Team is hoping to do just that. The group of citizens, organized into seven different committees to address a spectrum of different social issues, is working to make downtown Robbinsville a more enjoyable place for residents and a more attractive location for out-of-towners who might one day become in-towners. 

But Graham County has other barriers to a flourishing economy. Though it has a world-class “middle mile” infrastructure for Internet — the data equivalent of a freeway — it’s lacking those individual connections, comparable to highway exits, that would allow families and small businesses easy Internet access. There aren’t a lot of affordable apartments or other inexpensive housing for singles and couples without children and, perhaps most importantly, there’s no hospital. 

“They definitely want urgent care in the county, and we’ve been working on that for a long while,” Sherby said. 

But, if you’re going to spend $800 million, Mayes argues, why not build a $280 million road with the funds already available and use the rest to subsidize a hospital? 

“If we’re going to subsidize something, wouldn’t a hospital be a better way?” she said.

It’s not quite that simple, though, Sherby said. Sure, you could build a hospital, but how would it stay open and operating in a county whose population wouldn’t be capable of supporting it? 

“It’s hard for there to be a business case in areas that are so sparsely populated,” he said. 

The business case for Corridor K itself has been called into question. Opponents such as WaysSouth and N.C. Alliance for Transportation Reform say the traffic demands of the people who would use it don’t justify the creation of such an expensive road, and that’s just one of the points that has caused them to send out a resolution to governments in the western counties asking that they support a non-four-lane approach to Graham County’s transportation woes. 

So far, no one has signed on. 

“I was really kind of floored by that honestly, because I felt we were trying to reach out to them,” Mayes said. 

A counter resolution that Cable sent out in response has gained more traction, however. Macon County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee County have all given their support to getting a four-lane Corridor K built. 

Swain County has no plans yet to discuss the resolution but has historically supported building the road, signing a  resolution to that effect in 2010. 

“It would be another corridor. Another way to get to Swain County without having to go on a two-lane road, so there would be possibly new industry, possibly more accessibility for tourism,” King said, later continuing, “Our board has never really talked about environmental issues as far as Corridor K or any other road. They [N.C. DOT] do an environmental assessment each time they do a project.”

Jackson County had only just received a copy of the resolution Tuesday, and though Haywood hasn’t been sent it, the county maintains the position endorsed in a similar resolution that then-Graham County Manager Mickey Duvall sent in 2011. 


Moving forward

Though both N.C. DOT and Graham County insist they’re not married to the idea of a four-lane highway, their working plans now call for one. 

“If we said, ‘Hey, listen, Corridor K, we’ve decided we don’t want to do it but we want to add a corridor that does something else and we’d like to use $280 million for that, a change that big would have to be approved by the whole body [of the Appalachian Regional Commission],” said Van Argabright of N.C. DOT. 

The ARC is made up of representatives of the 13 states in the Appalachian region. They had to vote to give the initial OK for N.C. DOT to pursue the alternative they’re working with now, so changing the plan would require them to review the new alternative if N.C. DOT were to use the $280 million. The main requirement is that the road qualify as “high-speed.”

So from here, the future might be kind of an open question. Once appointed, the task force will have to decide upon which form of the road they want to advocate for and then advocate for it. Funding will have to be secured and any additional approval needed from the ARC given.

But the background of the Opt-In study and the data it generated to show what the region wants and needs will help grease the wheels. 

For now, funding aside, the four-lane highway still aces roadblocks with securing needed state and federal environmental permits.

“Whether we’re successful in getting permits or not, that’s yet to be seen. A lot of that will depend on the type of facilities that we may end up trying to construct,” Burch said. “I think everyone’s hopeful that once we get this regional vision that we can move forward and we won’t have those lingering questions we’ve had in the past of what this area wants and what they desire.”

And meanwhile, the Southwestern Commission and the seven counties it represents will make use of the myriad data and ideas the study brought in to set about making the region — the whole region — a better place. 

“It’s gonna sound fluffy, but I was amazed and kind of proud that across the board people feel like they live in the best place in the world, mostly because of the natural environment, the cultural heritage, the strong sense of community. That was true regardless of what perspective someone was coming from,” said Stacey Guffy, Macon county resident and Opt-In project manager. “There was also a strong consensus that the region should work together.”

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