In Graham County, a public hearing last week on Corridor K drew a crowd of 200 people, speaking for and against a new four-lane highway that would end rural isolation but destroy virgin countryside in the process.
The 9.9-mile highway would cost $383 million to complete. As one of the last missing links of Corridor K — known as section B-C by highway officials — it would go from Stecoah to Robbinsville.
The highway through Graham County has been in the planning stages for years but suffered a temporary setback in 2009. The North Carolina Department of Transportation was sent back to the drawing board by the Army Corps, who asked for a better analysis of the proposal and its impact.
At the time, many called for the current two-lane offerings, N.C. 143 and N.C. 28, to be widened and upgraded in lieu of a brand-new, four-lane highway.
But DOT officials have now said that their studies showed that to be impossible without damaging the renowned Appalachian Trail. The existing two-lane highway already crosses the trail, but should that road be widened, it would have a negative impact on the federally protected path.
Last week, the transportation department brought forward a new and improved version. The new plan offers two proposed routes that follow roughly the same path through the Stecoah Valley, with one swinging slightly further north. The DOT is are backing a combination of the two routes as their preferred option.
It includes a lengthy tunnel, just over half a mile long, intended to preserve the integrity of the Appalachian Trail by burrowing under it rather than bisecting it. A 1,063-foot bridge spanning Stecoah Creek is supposed to protect the waterway from degradation.
Some in Graham County are heralding the road as a boon to the region. Others see it as a blight on the landscape and the budget.
What is Corridor K?
The idea for a four-lane highway through the counties west of Asheville — known as Corridor K — had been on the books for decades. It is mostly completed except for a missing link of 17 miles through Graham County, the most remote and rugged stretch.
Corridor K is part of the Appalachian Regional Highway System, extending to Cleveland, Tenn., and devised in the ‘60s to engender economic development in isolated regions of Appalachia.