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Placement of pedestrian islands in Maggie Valley causes concern

Pedestrian islands currently being installed in Maggie Valley, like this one in front of Guayabitos, could increase pedestrian safety but could also cause traffic problems. Cory Vaillancourt photo Pedestrian islands currently being installed in Maggie Valley, like this one in front of Guayabitos, could increase pedestrian safety but could also cause traffic problems. Cory Vaillancourt photo

A construction project on the five-lane road in Maggie Valley is aimed at improving pedestrian safety, but some are also pointing out its potential to cause a whole lot of trouble for drivers. 


“Out of a concern for pedestrian safety, we’ve created a truly unsafe environment,” said Phillip Wight, longtime Maggie Valley alderman.

He’s talking about a series of pedestrian islands being installed on Soco Road, Maggie’s main drag. Right now, they’re only large rectangular holes in the center lane, marked with orange construction barrels and curbed out with concrete borders, but soon they’ll be elevated sanctuaries for foot traffic looking to cross from one side of the road to the other.

Pedestrian safety has long been a serious issue in Maggie Valley. Even though the speed limit is only 35 miles per hour, the expansive width of the road is an invitation for some to speed. And on busy days during the summer festival season, pedestrians routinely try to cross Soco Road whenever the notion strikes them.

“Everybody wants pedestrian safety when you’re trying to cross a five-lane road and this is the result of that, but it doesn’t make it right,” said Wight. “We need to fix this before it goes any further because it’s just it’s an unsafe environment and we’re going to have more accidents.”

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The pedestrian islands — there are already four, in front of First Baptist, Maggie United Methodist Church, town hall and Joey’s Pancake House — seem to have a calming effect on traffic and give pedestrians a break so they don’t have to play Frogger, but the specific placement of four new islands is what bothers Wight.

“You have to have a buffer so the people in the middle of the road can feel safe. I understand that,” said Wight. “But in the meantime, you’re creating an unsafe environment all the way around for the actual traffic flow and creating a hindrance on our businesses that are already here.”

Heading into Maggie Valley from the west, the first new island is being constructed just east of Moody Farm Road, near the entrance to Parham Memorial Park. While westbound traffic can still make a right to head down Moody Farm Road, traffic turning eastbound from Moody Farm Road to Soco Road may find the island to be an obstruction.

The second new island is just east of the westernmost driveway at Smoky Falls Lodge. That driveway is labeled as the entrance, with the easternmost driveway as the exit, but motorists don’t always respect that designation. Similar to the first island, vehicles taking a left to head east out of the parking lot must avoid the island in the center lane to merge safely into the eastbound lanes of Soco Road.

“The pedestrian islands look pretty; however, it seems as the surveying wasn’t done realistically. I personally know of multiple accidents that have occurred due to the existing islands especially not being visible at night,” said Twinkle Patel, co-owner of Smoky Falls and a former Maggie Valley alderman. “The new island in front of Smoky Falls is an absolute disaster. You cannot turn into Dollar General or Smoky Falls and Valley Tavern without consciously being aware if there is one car already in the middle turning lane. This needs to be rectified immediately before people are seriously hurt.”

The third new island is just west of the entrance to the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, and could prove the most problematic because it also sits right in front of the town’s new parking lot on the opposite side of Soco Road.

Drivers heading east, attempting to enter the Festival Grounds, can’t use the center lane to wait for breaks in westbound traffic to begin their left turns. Wight said he was worried that vehicles — especially those with trailers — would end up with their rear ends hanging out into the eastbound travel lane, creating a major backup.

“Now you can’t make some left turns that you were you were able to in the past. On festival days coming in and out of Maggie Valley, you won’t be able to go left,” he said. “I mean, there’s like five instances right here that’s made this area totally unsafe for moving traffic in the name of safety. It’s an unsafe environment.”

Such a scenario could also jam up both entrances to the town’s parking lot, preventing drivers using the westernmost exit from heading east and drivers using the easternmost exit from heading west — all amid a sea of pedestrians attempting to cross the street from the parking lot to the festival grounds.

This particular island could also cause problems for Cabbage Rose and for Guayabitos, two businesses located on the same side of the street just west of the Festival Grounds entrance. The island would prevent drivers leaving the plaza that houses the two businesses from using the center lane from taking a left out of the easternmost driveway, especially if traffic into the Festival Grounds is heavy.

And it gets worse. Another island just a few hundred feet west of the Festival Grounds island completely blocks the Guayabitos plaza’s westernmost driveway, meaning drivers wishing to proceed east out of the parking lot cannot do so at all — they’ll turn right instead, and then have to make a dangerous U-turn in the middle of Soco Road or turn into another business’s parking lot, then turn around to proceed east.

“It’s just not right,” said Felipe Martinez, co-owner of the popular Mexican restaurant in the plaza. “It’s not nice for everybody’s businesses, not just our business.”

The island also obstructs the easternmost driveway at Market Square Plaza right across the street — home to some of Maggie Valley’s oldest, most successful commercial establishments. Westbound drivers won’t easily be able to turn left into the plaza at that entrance, while drivers exiting the plaza hoping to turn left and head west won’t be able to do that, either.

Martinez is concerned that there will be accidents there; indeed, as Martinez spoke to The Smoky Mountain News outside his restaurant on Aug. 10, one almost occurred.

“With the interest and the traffic that we get over the weekend with the events, we will definitely have something eventually, you know,” he said, before a white SUV leaving his lot nearly drove right into the construction barrels outlining the future site of the island. “You can see right now this guy, right? if somebody tries to get out of there and somebody is pulling in front just to come in, there is no way to turn.”

Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) has been at odds  with the mayor and the majority of Maggie Valley’s governing board  over a number of recent issues. Add this one to the list.

“The way it’s sitting right now, this is not a good plan,” Pless said last week. “I think a walkway over the highway would have been great. I think that would have solved this, but no one ever asked for it. If they had asked for it, then I could have probably found the funding through some infrastructure money to where we could fix this for Maggie Valley and put a couple of places where people could cross. I don’t think you need people crossing a five-lane highway. I don’t care if the speed limit’s 20 miles an hour.”

The problematic placement of the islands was foretold  in an SMN story from March 2020, when aldermen were presented with two options to promote pedestrian safety.

One, a “road diet” that would shrink Soco Road from five lanes to three between Fie Top Road and the west end of Moody Farm Road, was deemed unpalatable.

The other option was to install the islands.

“There’s no way to do it without losing a couple of lefthand turns,” Mayor Mike Eveland said at the time. “We’ll look at the basic plan and then look at adjusting it — it’s not going to be met with 100% approval.”

The entire Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen, including Wight and fellow Alderman Tammy Wight, voted in favor of the islands.

“Their problem is, they voted for this and all of a sudden now they don’t like it,” Eveland said when reached for comment on Aug. 21.

Eveland has been consistent by saying that the plan wouldn’t be perfect, and added that once the project is complete, tweaks can be made if necessary.

According to a municipal agreement between the town and the North Carolina Department of Transportation in November 2022, the total cost of the project is estimated at $2,075,000.

Municipalities can embark on their own infrastructure projects, like the road diet on Charlotte Street in Asheville, but smaller municipalities lacking the labor resources can utilize DOT to administer the project on behalf of the town and to help with the contract, the design and the necessary inspections.

The town was responsible for 20% of the cost, or $415,000, with DOT using federal funds for the other 80%. Maggie Valley’s share of the preliminary engineering was $35,000, leaving a balance of $380,000. Prior to construction, the town was to cut a check for half of that, with the final half, $190,000, due on completion.

Per DOT officials, Maggie Valley has the power to stop the project but would be responsible for all costs associated with the stoppage and with moving or removing the islands.

Alderman Jim Owens said that the islands are the best solution for a longstanding problem in Maggie Valley, and that he’s heard no negativity at all.

“In fact I’ve had several people reach out to me and say, ‘Thank goodness, it was way overdue and we’re grateful it’s getting done,’” Owens said.

He added that some have even said the islands will be good for the elk population that strolls through the valley unpredictably, frequently and without regard to traffic laws. It’s not that the elk will use the islands, but Owens thinks the islands may help slow traffic so motorists can avoid killing them.

Alderman John Hinton said he’s heard a few complaints, but also that more people say it’s a good idea.

“Maybe that’s the price to pay for pedestrian safety. If that’s the end result, I don’t know that I’ve got a problem with that,” Hinton said. “Rather than trash the project, I think we’re better off keeping it and going back and handling any problems once its complete.”

Maggie Valley’s police chief said he’s aware of incidents with motorists running into the existing islands in the past.

“In general, I don’t much care for obstacles being in the way, but there is a safety issue on the pedestrian side as well,” said Matt Boger, who’s been with the department since 2010 and was appointed chief on Aug. 8. “It’s got its plusses. I’m hoping it slows some traffic, but I guess we’ll wait and see.”

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