Environmental groups support Needmore Road improvements, but not DOT’s proposal

An environmental group dedicated to protecting the Little Tennessee River has come out against a state proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road from one to two lanes.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association did not dismiss out-of-hand the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to make improvements to the road. The Franklin-based group, however, stated that it would not support a proposal calling for such extensive work.

Needmore Road is currently a rough, one-lane gravel road paralleling N.C. 28 on the opposite bank of the river in Macon and Swain counties. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association stated it “is in favor of a solution for Needmore Road that deals with safety and environmental problems that currently exist there, and wishes to participate with the DOT and the community in defining alternatives which will address both sets of problems while serving local transportation needs and contributing to the realization of the goals for which the Needmore Game Lands was created.”

The transportation department has set a Sept. 21 question-and-answer session, followed by a 7 p.m. public hearing, on the proposal. If built as proposed, 3.3 miles of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet. Additionally, construction work would take place on the roadway’s shoulders.

The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the environmental group says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost.


Group’s opposition outlined

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association said the project was untenable because:

• “DOT states that the intent of the improvement is to ‘avoid or minimize adverse impacts’ to this outstanding stretch of river and rich game lands. Increased thru traffic and the consequences of major road construction through acidic rock will adversely impact the Needmore Game Lands and will alter the character of this recreational area which comprises and integral part of our local heritage.”

• “It is not consistent with the intent of the $17.5 million of public funds, including $7.5 million of DOT funds, invested to secure the Needmore Game Lands for recreational use and protection of local heritage.”

• “There are more immediate and pressing infrastructure and road-repair needs that should be addressed with such a large expenditure of public dollars.”

The environmental group’s position seems in line with statements previously made by Cheryl Taylor, leader of Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation, to The Smoky Mountain News.

Taylor, a Swain County native and Needmore resident, said she believes Needmore Road “needs to see some improvements, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy.”


Protecting the river

“There are impacts from that stretch of the river that come off of the Needmore Road,” said aquatic biologist Bill McLarney, who is the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.

McLarney has studied the upper watershed of the river for more than two decades. His work resulted in a state governor’s award in 1994 for water conversationist of the year, among other accolades.

The sedimentation is not just caused by rainfall, but even by wind, said McLarney, who sometimes uses snorkeling gear to examine the river.

“It is like somebody had put a thin layer of dust over the rocks,” he said of the bank’s appearance that is nearest Needmore Road.

Aquatic life there also has been adversely impacted.

“I have always been of the opinion [that] paving the Needmore Road would be a plus for the value of the river,” McLarney said.

But, the aquatic biologist said, he simply can’t support the option currently favored by the transportation department. Such work would increase traffic and detract from the recreational value, and diminish the importance of what took place when groups that have sometimes seemed at odds worked together.

“It would not have happened if local people … had not wanted to have it happen,” he said.”

One of the major players in that effort, the Land Trust of the Little Tennessee, has opted to stay out of this particular battle, at least for now. Sharon Taylor, land protection director for the group, said the land trust has not taken a position for or against the state’s proposal.

The land trust works with property owners and others to protect the “waters, forests, farms and heritage” of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys.


Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance Environmental Group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.


Learn more:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starting at 7 p.m., Sept. 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

Sylva pedestrian plan to come one step at a time

Getting around on your own two feet in Sylva would be safer and easier if an ambitious, $4.5-million pedestrian plan becomes reality.

The plan — really, a wish list that would help keep the town moving now and in the future — is headed for review by the state Department of Transportation after being presented to civic leaders last week. The 20-year blueprint for getting from here to there safely calls for more sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic lights and a picnic area.

The state review is expected to take one to two months.

“I think this is the time to make the right choices for what we want in this community,” said John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Company, between tending to customers at the popular West Main Street establishment. “If we build more roads, we are going to only have more cars. If we make Sylva pedestrian-friendly, we’ll have families and out-of-town visitors walking to see what the town offers.”


What’s there, what’s not

Compared to many towns, Sylva is in fairly decent shape, said the plan’s primary architect, Don Kostelec. The town used a $20,000 Transportation Department grant to hire the Asheville-based consultant, the senior transportation planner for Transpo Group. Kostelec partnered with a local steering committee made up of town officials, the county’s greenways coordinator and others.

The sidewalks in downtown are wide, Kostelec said, and there are already some crosswalks in place. Additionally, the missing link of a sidewalk between Sylva and its neighbor, Dillsboro, is in the works, and a new bridge now connects downtown with a town park and playground, which were once cut off by Scott’s Creek.

But long-term, Kostelec said, the goal of the plan is to transform Sylva into truly “a great, walkable downtown.”

The plan will take time, money and patience to realize. Many of the recommendations fall under long-term goals that could take up to 20 years to build.

“Where I’m stuck is, where do we start pursuing funding for some of these projects?” said town Commissioner Stacey Knotts of the overall plan.

Kostelec suggested the town seek grants to help pay for the projects.

“Having an adopted policy kind of puts you in line, as I understand it,” Mayor Maurice Moody said.

Some business owners, however, want to remain focused on parking issues before that happens.

“It’s pretty important that we get more parking along Main Street,” said Ben Seay, the owner of My Place restaurant, who is better known for his ownership of Uncle Bill’s Flea Market, located between Sylva and Bryson City. “That’s the bigger problem. We need parking.”

The plan doesn’t ignore parking altogether. It acknowledges there are issues with typical parking lot designs in that the “primary carriageway for vehicles in the parking lot happens to coincide with where the greatest numbers of pedestrians cross: directly in front of the main entrance.”

For the most part, however, the plan is focused on what happens to people once they get out of their cars.


Sylva pedestrian plan

To make the costs more palatable, the plan is broken down into bite-sized pieces. Here are some of the recommendations.

Short-terms goals, 5 to 7 years, $289,000:

• Along Grindstaff Road, adding a crosswalk at Mill Street and upgrading the railroad crossing for pedestrian access.

• Building a picnic area outside the Jackson County Administration Building.

• Build a sidewalk from Grindstaff Road to Jackson Plaza.  

• Along N.C. 107, include crosswalk and pedestrian signals on Wal-Mart side to connect existing sidewalks and upgrade with future sidewalks along the highway.

• On Main and Mill streets, fill sidewalk gaps and upgrade existing sidewalks, and make pedestrian access to the courthouse via Keener from Main Street.

Mid-term goals, 5 to 12 years, $617,000:

• At the U.S. 23 Business and Skyland Drive intersection, adding crosswalks, installing “countdown” pedestrian signals and upgrading curb ramps to meet Americans with Disabilities Acts requirements.

• On Savannah Drive, from Keener to Cowee streets, improve the stairway to Mark Watson Park, fix problem areas on existing sidewalks.

Long-term goals, 20 years, $3.5 million:

• Sidewalks along U.S. 23 Business near the hospital.

• Sidewalks from N.C. 107 along the west side of Cope Creek Road.

Federal, state taxpayers to fund Maggie slide cleanup

Everything has fallen into place for a government-sponsored cleanup of the Rich Cove mudslide in Maggie Valley, an undertaking pegged at roughly $1.47 million.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service agreed last week to foot 75 percent of the bill to stabilize the slide through the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which helps repair watersheds damaged by natural disasters.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has agreed to fund much of the remaining 25 percent local match since the slide affects a state-maintained road.

Maggie Valley’s town government has agreed to chip in $25,000 toward the local match, while Ghost Town in the Sky, a bankrupt amusement park where the slide originated, has volunteered $25,000 as well, but possibly in in-kind services rather than cash.

Town officials were driven by a sense of urgency to lock down funding for the cleanup since a large part of the mountainside remains unstable and threatens an even worse slide.

“I don’t think we have a choice but to do it,” said Maggie Valley Alderwoman Saralyn Price. “Because I feel like it’s a safety issue.”

At first, the town was at a loss for how it’d come up with the local match, which under current estimates comes to $334,000. Maggie Valley could hardly afford the whole amount by itself.

The town asked county leaders for help, but they balked at the idea of committing tax dollars to fix a slide that originated on private property — even though the property owner is in bankruptcy with a long trail of debt and was unable to pay up, either.

In the end, N.C. Rep. Phil Haire and N.C. Sen. Joe Sam Queen stepped in, teaming up to secure emergency funding from the N.C. DOT.

“We realize the dire circumstances those people who use Rich Cove Road were in,” said Haire. “I’m certainly glad Sen. Queen and I could do all we could to help out.”

Alderman Scott Pauley said Friday he was disappointed in the county board for not pitching in.

“We’ve got county residents and town residents that are losing sleep every night and haven’t slept since the slide,” said Pauley.

Pauley called the town’s contribution of $25,000 “a small, small cost to get this done.”

Town Manager Tim Barth said the town had to take action because it was unrealistic to expect Ghost Town to foot the bill.

“The reality is Ghost Town is in bankruptcy,” said Barth. “I know that they don’t have $334,500, so there’s no point in forcing them to pay because they won’t.”

However, Barth and Pauley have not ruled out the possibility of suing Ghost Town to be reimbursed. For now, Pauley said the focus is on getting the cleanup going.

“Anything after that is going to have to be for a later date,” said Pauley.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said he hopes to pay the company’s share of the cleanup cost by contributing work from Ghost Town’s engineer.

“We want to make sure that he’s involved completely,” Shiver said.

Shiver also pointed out that Ghost Town has already cooperated with NCDOT, and state and local agencies to help study the slide and facilitate cleanup.

According to Shiver, the economic importance of Ghost Town to Maggie Valley “far outweighs” the government’s investment to repair the slide.

“There are issues that we all must be a part of the solution,” said Shiver. “This is one of them.”

Sylva pedestrian plan takes shape

The Town of Sylva finalized an agreement with the N.C. Department of Transportation last week that clears the way for a continuous sidewalk to Dillsboro.

The town will pitch in $83,000 to build the missing link and maintain the sidewalk, and N.C. DOT will cover the remaining costs.

The sidewalk extension has been a goal for the town board since 2008 and pre-dated Sylva’s pedestrian planning process. But it’s a success story that motivates Town Commissioner Sarah Graham to create similar partnerships in the future.

“You’ll be able to walk from Dillsboro to Webster on the sidewalk, and it just shows how easy it is to partner on projects like this,” Graham said.

When the 4,000-foot extension is completed this summer, it will connect Sylva’s sidewalks to Dillsboro’s by filling in a gap along West Main Street between Mark Watson Park and Jackson Village. The pedestrian planning process initiated in November was intended to lay a blueprint for similar pedestrian improvement projects in the future and to provide a platform for partnering with Jackson County and the DOT.

“I think everyone understands that the money to buy a bunch of sidewalks is not there right now,” Graham said. “But we wanted to hear from the community whether they shared the town board’s ideas about making the town more friendly to pedestrians.”

The town used a $20,000 N.C. DOT grant to hire Donald Kostelec, a consultant from the Asheville office of The Louis Berger Group, to oversee the process and provide technical input. The steering committee –– which includes Graham, Emily Elders, the county’s greenways coordinator, and Ryan Sherby of the Southwestern Commission –– began meeting in early November to develop a vision for the plan.

Last month, residents from a range of Sylva communities gathered for focus groups and offered input that would ultimately shape the plan’s direction.

The focus groups confirmed that the pedestrian plan would zero in on solutions for three primary areas –– Skyland Drive, Mill Street in the downtown district and the N.C. 107 commercial corridor.

Graham said the meetings helped create a consensus about how to focus the planning effort by bringing together residents from distinct neighborhoods.

Both Mill Street and N.C. 107 are commercial corridors that are currently dangerous for pedestrians because of their high-volume traffic and noticeable lack of safe crosswalks.

Kostelec said his intent with the focus groups was to zero in on the physical challenges presented by the areas that need improvement.

“We wanted to get down to identifying on the map where exactly people walk then figure out where those patterns will move in the future,” Kostelec said.

The town used a pedestrian survey to get input from residents. The survey asks people where they walk, how often, and where they would like to be able to walk in the future.

Kostelec said each of the three areas pegged for improvement comes with its own set of challenges. Skyland Drive is an area in need of new sidewalks, which are costly. The goal is to connect Sylva’s downtown with the Harris Regional Hospital campus and Skyland’s commercial district.

“Doing that type of project in one chunk is not going to be possible for a town of Sylva’s size,” Kostelec said.

Kostelec said he is still working on pinning down the right of way restrictions on Skyland, an old state highway route, to see if there is room for a separated sidewalk between the road and train tracks.

N.C. 107 is a heavily trafficked part of town that is cursed by a narrow right of way. Kostelec said any plan to improve the sidewalks would involve getting easements from neighboring property owners.

Mill Street is an area that could see marked improvement at a relatively modest price point because it’s not a terribly long stretch to tackle. But because the road is maintained by the DOT, any work there is contingent on good cooperation between the town and the department, Graham said.

“The implementation will have a lot to do with cooperation from DOT, because Mill Street is a DOT road,” Graham said. “I’m hoping if we have a plan in hand and we’ve been through the process and we know what we want, that those negotiations will be a lot easier.”

The Pedestrian Plan will be showcased at an open house during the Greening Up the Mountains Festival on April 24. Sylva’s Pedestrian Plan Survey is available at www.townofsylva.org.

Landowner dismayed N.C. 107 bridge widening will claim archaeology site

A Cherokee archaeological site spanning from at least 6,000 years ago to the 18th century stands in the way of bridge widening project over the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

Plans call for widening the N.C. 107 bridge over the river from its existing width of just 20 feet to 50 feet at a cost of $4.2 million. The new bridge will be three lanes with shoulders and a sidewalk.

Landowners and the N.C. Department of Transportation are at odds over the project. The archaeological site is on land owned by the Moses family for 120 years. The family has taken pride in the site and hosted university sponsored archaeological digs on its property through the years.

While a wider bridge has been in the making for more than a decade, plans initially called for building a new bridge in the same place, leaving the archaeological site untouched. Plans were altered in 2007, calling not only for a much larger footprint but also shifting the bridge over to sit on top of the site.

The DOT failed to notify the landowners of the change until now, according to Cherrie Moses of Tuckasegee.

The family got a phone call a few weeks ago from DOT to discuss purchasing their property for the widening.

“We were in total shock,” said Moses, 52, a retired school teacher. “This is the first time we are hearing about this, and it is already a done deal. It was like all you need to do is sign on the dotted line, and the bulldozers are ready.”

Since 1997, Moses said she was told the site would be protected.

“The plans that my family had been given stated that the bridge was going back basically where it is, that the site would not be compromised,” Moses said.

Pam Williams, a bridge project planning engineer, said the Moses family was made aware of the new plan, but they must not have fully understood.

The DOT was well aware of the archaeological site in the path of the bridge widening. It plans to excavate the site first and document all the artifacts that are found, said Matt Wilkerson, a DOT archaeologist.

Wilkerson said one of the most intriguing aspects of the site is relatively recent Cherokee occupation dating to the 1700s. One house site was excavated in an archaeology dig by a university team a few decades ago, and Wilkerson thinks there may be more.

The site won’t be destroyed by the bridge, Wilkerson said. If anything, the bridge project will allow the secrets of the site to be uncovered with an archaeological dig.

In crafting an excavation plan, DOT consulted with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the state historic preservation office. Both signed off on the project with the caveat that the artifacts be saved in advance of the bulldozers.

Moses doesn’t understand why they included everyone except the landowners.

“That is not right. We would have liked to been in on the meeting and voiced our concerns,” said Moses, who also happens to be the chair of the Jackson County Historic Preservation Commission.

The site is on its way to being listed on the National Historic Register after being recommended by the DOT archaeologist.

Federal law requires a formal public process when impacting sites that are eligible for the National Register, but no one ever sought out participation by the Moses family.


Chain of events

The bridge was targeted for replacement more than a decade ago due to its age and narrow width. It is technically deemed “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete.” It is still safe, Williams said, but won’t stay that way forever, and maintenance costs will increase.

The existing bridge has 10-foot lanes and no shoulders.

“We have had several side swipes over the past few years,” Williams said.

The new bridge will have three 12-foot lanes, 4-foot shoulders that will double as bike lanes and a sidewalk on one side.

It will also have a left-turn lane for Shook Cove Road, which sits 100 feet from the bridge. The turn lane will be 200 feet long in all. Some left-turn lanes may only be 50 feet — just long enough for a couple of cars to queue up while waiting to make a left. Why is Shook Cove’s turn lane so long?

“There are a lot of variables actually to determine how much traffic would back up on the main line,” Williams said.

Williams cited an increase in development up Shook Cove as justifying the turn lane. Traffic counts in 2005 showed 4,700 cars a day passing over the bridge, with 200 vehicles making a left onto Shook Cove.

Moses questioned why the new bridge has to be so wide.

“This is a massive bridge. It is not even going to fit in,” Moses said.

Moses believes the bridge was planned with the expectation that new developments would add to traffic in the future. But the once zealous plans of developers are drastically scaled back these days, Moses said.


How it will be built

Under the original plan, a temporary river crossing would be built on the Moses property to accommodate traffic while the existing bridge was demolished and built back in the same place. To protect artifacts, heavy black fabric would be laid down and fill dirt placed on top. It would all be hauled away when the project was done. That method is no longer considered sensitive enough, however, Williams said.

Instead, DOT will use the “staged construction” method. Traffic will continue to flow on the existing bridge while the new bridge is built alongside it. Then traffic will shift to the new bridge while the old one is torn down and the other half of the new bridge built in its place.

Williams said there were two attempts to share the new plan with the public. One was a newsletter sent to property owners in December 2007. While the newsletter announces that the bridge will use a “staged construction method,” it fails to explain that such a method necessitates a larger bridge footprint.

“Reading the literature and having someone sit down with you and explain the plans are two different things,” Williams said.

The other outreach by the DOT was a public meeting in early 2008 on upgrades to N.C. 107, specifically lane widening and the new shoulders through the Tuckasegee community. Williams went to the meeting with the bridge plans in hand expecting residents would ask about it as part of the larger N.C. 107 upgrades.

Williams also said she twice mentioned “data recovery” to Moses in emails. But just as the term “staged construction” means little to the lay person, Moses did not realize that references to “data recovery” translated to “archaeological dig,” meaning the bridge’s footprint would consume the site and require an excavation in advance of construction.

But, by the same token, the DOT didn’t know exactly where the new footprint would be until now.

“We can’t sit down and tell them how much land we are taking until we get the design plans done,” Williams said. And at that point, property owners are contacted about buying right of way.


More information:

Construction of a wider bridge over the Tuckasegee on N.C. 107 could start by spring of 2011. The project would take 18 months. Two lanes of traffic — one in each direction — would remain open throughout.

Delays in rock slide cleanup push back I-40 opening

Harsh winter weather has delayed the reopening of Interstate 40 until late April, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Snow, rain, heavy winds and bitter cold shut down operations for a total of 14 days, leading to the delay.

“The weather has been the only reason,” said Jon Nance, chief engineer of operations for the DOT. “The contractor has been very aggressive.”

The DOT initially stated the cleanup would take about three months shortly after a massive rockslide buried the interstate near the Tennessee border on Oct. 25.

Following a closer look, the DOT shifted its target for reopening to March, but warned the cleanup could take as long as May.

The cost of repairing the rockslide’s impact remains $10 million, at the upper limit of the original estimate.

Dean Kirkpatrick, owner of Dean’s Haywood Café near exit 24 of Interstate 40, said he’s disappointed about the delay but understands the reasoning behind it.

Kirkpatrick often interacts with I-40 workers who regularly visit his restaurant and give him the latest updates.

“We appreciate all of them, the road crews, the bridge crews, working day and night,” said Kirkpatrick.

Still, Kirkpatrick admits that January and February have been the two toughest months he can remember in his 40 years of business.

While it’s been months since the DOT shut down the Interstate near his business, Kirkpatrick holds no grudges against the agency.

“They are anxious to get it open just as much as we are,” said Kirkpatrick. “I’m sure they’re getting a lot of flack.”

Businesses that rely on the interstate for tourism are also eagerly anticipating the road’s reopening. Tourism in the region usually starts picking up in April, according to Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

But Collins said the first priority is to make roads safe for travelers.

The DOT has been cooperative changing its signs to let travelers know they can still access Western North Carolina regardless of the road closure, according to Collins. They’ve even placed one such sign in South Carolina, Collins added.

According to the DOT, about 25 inches of snow fell between December and February, a 250 percent increase over the historic average of 10 inches.

Seventeen inches of rain fell on the area during the same period, about a 30 percent increase over the historic average of 13 inches.

In spite of the tough weather, contractors have cleared a rock mass 60 feet wide, 80 feet tall and 20 feet thick — the size of a small apartment building — and are working on installing 590 rock bolts to stabilize the mountainside.

Crews have drilled 230 holes and have installed 125 as of Monday. Drilling for the bolts has been underway for more than seven weeks, but they have finished only a third of the work.

Some bolts are more than 100 feet long. In particularly steep sections of the rock face, bolts must be lowered in place by a helicopter while men in harnesses guide them into place. The bolting process can continue once the Interstate reopens.

The DOT has taken advantage of the 20-mile road closure to work on maintenance projects, including paving tunnels, repairs to four bridges, tree and brush maintenance and slope mowing along the corridor — all of which has amounted to $5.3 million in investments.

“We have not been sitting idly by,” said Nance. “We have done a lot of work.”

DOT plans ahead to stave off slides

Rather than continuing a reactive approach to rockslides on Interstate 40, the DOT is making a widespread effort to prevent disasters like the Oct. 25 slide from occurring again.

The DOT says it will invest $4 million to stabilize five other sites that have either experienced slides in the past or are likely sources of future slides. The money will hopefully come from federal highway emergency funds.

“If there’s a silver lining in all of this,” said Jon Nance, DOT’s chief engineer of operations, “it’s that we’ve located other areas that need to be repaired to prevent another occurrence like this one.”

All of the sites are in the final five miles of the Pigeon River Gorge before reaching the Tennessee line. The area is known for instability and has been prone to slides since its construction. When a second rock slide struck six weeks ago — in the same vicinity as the major slide — it triggered an assessment of the corridor to identify particularly unstable spots.

This additional work will not affect the reopening of I-40, though one mile of the westbound lane will be closed until this summer to finish it.

The DOT estimates the new project will employ between 50 to 100 more people. The first step is removing unstable rock in a process called scaling, which involves men with crowbars dislodging loose rock. Large bolts will then be set deeply into the mountain to snug down the rock face.

Corridor K sent back to drawing board

A proposed four-lane highway through a mountainous region of Graham County has suffered a setback.

The N.C. Department of Transportation was nearing the final planning stages and hoped to start construction in a few years on what is commonly known as Corridor K. But the project has been sent back to the drawing board to consider whether a two-lane option could achieve the same purpose as a new four-lane highway.

The roadblock has come from the Army Corp of Engineers, which has to sign off on various environmental permits for the highway. The Corp ruled that the DOT did not properly consider all the alternatives, however. The Corps wrote in a letter to the DOT that “upgrading and improving existing two-lane roadways should be given full consideration as a practical alternative.”

The DOT was supposed to weigh the pros and cons of various options in an environmental analysis — as required by federal law for projects of this magnitude — but a two-lane highway relying partially on existing roads was not included in the 2008 study.

“A massive, four-lane highway through the mountains of this region is overkill, both in terms of the price tag and environmental harm. It’s great news the agencies are considering more reasonable alternatives,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville.

The idea for a four-lane highway through the counties west of Asheville had been on the books for decades and is mostly completed except for a missing link of 17 miles through Graham County — the most remote and rugged stretch.

At public hearing on the road last fall, critics of the new highway far outnumbered supporters. They cited the environmental impacts of a new four-lane highway and loss of historical rural character of Stecoah Valley.

But to supporters, the highway would bring sorely lacking economic development and benefit commerce in a county that currently has no four lanes roads leading in or out.

In North Carolina, the DOT’s own studies show that improvements to existing two-lane highways will easily handle the projected traffic for decades to come.

“They can’t ignore an alternative that costs half as much and avoids paving through an environmental treasure. Federal law is clear on this,” Gerken said.

Only 10 miles of the 17-mile missing link are currently in the planning stages — a section leading north out of Robbinsville over Stecoah Gap. The 10-mile section would cost $378 million and cut a more than half-mile long tunnel under the Snowbird Mountains, requiring excavation of 3 million cubic yards of rock.

“A new four-lane highway through sensitive mountain habitat would have unacceptably destructive impacts to wildlife habitat and water quality,” said Hugh Irwin with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition in Asheville. “Upgrading existing highways has always made the most sense.”

Chris North with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation cited the impacts to public lands, including trails, trout streams, hunting areas and campgrounds.

Environmental organizations are lauding the Army Corp for not rubber stamping the project but instead requiring due diligence by the DOT.

“We are grateful that the Corps has heard our voice and the voices of others in the region,” said Lucy Bartlett, chairman of WaysSouth, an organization solely focused on reducing the footprint of new highway construction in the mountains.

The DOT could still theoretically get approval for the four-lane highway after going back and analyzing the two-lane option if they can prove the two-lane would not do the job.

How to fix a mountainside

In the first days following the rockslide on Interstate 40 last October, Jody Kuhne had the unenviable job of rappelling down the freshly scoured rock face and into a gaping chasm left in the mountainside.

As the DOT’s resident expert on landslides, his mission was to figure out the nature of the problem and begin plotting a fix.

A giant slab the size of a five-story apartment building had sheered off the mountainside. Most of it fractured on impact creating an enormous pile of over-sized boulders. But a large wedge was lodged at the base of the mountain like a stubborn bookend. Unless Kuhne could rappel behind it — a six-foot-wide fissure called the back crack — he wouldn’t know exactly what kind of slide they were dealing with.

With surveying instruments stowed in his pack, Kuhne harnessed up and lowered down the rock face on ropes to measure the angle of the fault line that caused the slide. Combined with aerial photography, he generated a 3-D map of the remaining mountainside and soon realized they were dealing with a worst case scenario.

The rock slide was known as a “wedge failure,” except only the lower half of the wedge had broken lose.

Imagine an upside down pyramid superimposed on the rock face. The tip broke off and slid down the mountain, but the wide base was left behind and now loomed 250 to 400 feet above the workers on the ground. A fault line — the same fault line that caused the lower part to slide — ran in a large vein all the way up the mountainside.

That fault line lurking below the surface left the upper half of the mountain susceptible to a slide. It was Kuhne’s job to figure out just how susceptible.

“If it came out to a certain factor of stability that was acceptable to us, we’d walk away. But it didn’t. It is on the borderline of stability,” Kuhne said.

Ideally, they could blast away what remained of the giant wedge to eliminate the looming threat.

“We tried that, but it was time consuming, expensive and extremely dangerous,” Kuhne said.

Short of a bombing run by the U.S. Air Force, that strategy seemed impossible.

“To get up there and start drilling and blasting, you risk a catastrophic failure of the whole thing. It would certainly kill anyone on it, around it or in front of it,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the slide site.

So if the mountain couldn’t be brought down, at least not until gravity was ready, Kuhne had to figure out how to stop gravity from eventually getting its way. The answer was bolts. Lots of them.

Theoretically, bolts drilled deep below the vein of weakness would apply enough torque to hold the mountainside in place.

“It has to be anchored below the failure plane and basically snug that thing to the slope,” Kuhne said.

Based on his modeling, Kuhne could calculate how deep the fault plane was. Along the outer edges, it ran about 40 feet below the surface. But in the center — the thickest part of the wedge — it was some 120 feet down.

Based on the force each bolt conveyed and the mass of the wedge being held in place, Kuhne came up with 590 bolts. They would be spaced every 10 feet creating a giant grid on the mountainside. Kuhne likens it to a blanket of force battening down the rock face.

The sheer number of bolts combined with the depth of the holes mean 9.5 miles of holes have to be drilled.

It took eight weeks to blast apart and haul away to pile of boulders created by the slide.

“If that was all we were facing we would be done and open right now,” Kuhne said.

But the process of drilling holes and anchoring giant bolts into the mountainside has proved time consuming, further hampered by snow, ice and record cold.

There are currently five drill rigs on the side of the mountain, each one about the size of a go-cart. The drill shafts come in five-foot sections. Every five feet, the operator has to stop and screw on another length of shaft as it bores deeper and deeper.


Installing the bolts

So far, nearly a third of the 590 holes have been drilled. This week, the first bolts will be installed, no easy task given their enormous length.

A helicopter will hover overhead suspending the bolts while men on the slope maneuver them into place and feed each one into its hole.

Since the holes vary in depth, each one is numbered. The bolts have a tag with a corresponding number — a piece of duct tape marked with a black Sharpie.

The bolts are only 1.5 inches in diameter, but the holes being drilled are roughly 3.5 inches. The space around the bolts will be filled with grout.

The job will take a lot of grout, about two tractor-trailer loads. Water to mix with the grout will be pumped from a stream cascading down the mountain near the slope. Pipes will carry the water overland to a giant holding tank at the top of the slope. The holding tank has a heater to warm the water up to 50 degrees before it can be mixed with the grout, Patton said.

Getting grout into the deep but narrow gap around the bolt is another challenge. Long tubes duct taped along the length of the bolts will carry grout pumped to the bottom of the hole.

“You are filling the hole up from the bottom up,” Patton said.

The bolt has a flexible plastic ring every 10 feet to serve as a spacer and keep it centered in the hole as grout fills up around it.

Further complicating the process, each bolt had to be cased in a large plastic sheath. Inside the sheath, the bolt is caked with grease. The bolt will stretch as it is tightened down, and the greased-coated sheath will allow the necessary movement without breaking the bolt.

“You put these thing under so much stress that, believe it or not, we will stretch that bolt about four inches,” Patton said.

Each bolt will be subjected to a force of 7,000 PSI (pounds per square inch) using a giant hydraulic jack to pull it tight.

Finally, a plate about seven inches in diameter will cap the bolt.

Given the roughly 400 holes left to drill, and all but 10 of the 590 bolts still to install, including five days to let grout dry in each hole before the bolts can be stretched and capped, it is optimistic to assume the DOT can meet its self-imposed deadline of getting the Interstate open again by the end of March. But Patton said that’s still the plan.

“When things really get rolling, that is not necessarily going to be impossible,” Patton said.

Hang-ups are inevitable, however, and not just from the weather. The contractor hoped to fire up additional drilling rigs on the slope, but for the past three weeks, crews have been waiting on an order of extra drill shafts to arrive from Italy.

“All the Italians went on extended vacation at Christmas time,” Patton said.

As the lead DOT inspector on the slide, Patton is tasked with assessing whether the holes are drilled right, the bolts are installed right and whether each one carries the right load.

“Only 590 good bolts achieves the safety factor we are looking for so you have to make sure all 590 are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Patton said.

Only time will tell if the strategy will work. But one thing is certain: without the bolts, the upper half of the mountain would be a ticking time bomb given the past history of I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge.

“Considering we get these every 10 years periodically and have had dozens since this was constructed, it will slide sooner than a million years,” Kuhne said. “If this decides to fail while we are standing here it will take about 10 seconds for it all to be in the road, and we will stand here and watch it all happen.”

Macon residents still waiting on McCoy Bridge plan

A year ago, state officials promised a group of Macon County residents that they would get a cost estimate for what it would take to rehabilitate the McCoy Bridge, a single lane truss bridge that dates from the 1930s.

That cost assessment hasn’t happened yet and now the North Carolina Department of Transportation says the project has dropped in priority because of the state’s budget crisis.

Residents want to save the McCoy Bridge because of its unique character and aesthetic value. The NCDOT, meanwhile, has argued that the bridge is not historic and needs to be replaced with a two-lane bridge with greater weight-bearing capacity. The bridge is seen by some as a symbol of the community’s rural character, something that could be comprised if a bigger bridge replaced it.

In response to opposition from residents to the NCDOT’s plan to replace the bridge, the agency promised it would provide a cost assessment for the bridge’s rehabilitation within the year, and a year is now up. Steve Abbot, communications director for the NCDOT, said that assessment hasn’t been completed and could not provide a concrete timetable for its completion.

The bottom line from the NCDOT’s perspective is that the state’s budget crisis and the I-40 rockslide have made the bridge a low priority.

“The project has been delayed due to the State’s financial crisis and other projects that are funded have been given higher priority for our resources,” Abbot said. “Until we work through the current issues, we will not be setting the project schedule.”

According to the DOT, the most current cost estimate for replacing the 290-foot bridge and its roadway approaches is $2.424 million, a figure that does not include any right-of-way acquisition or utility relocation cost.

Doug Woodward, a resident who has championed the McCoy Bridge cause, argues the bridge should be saved and that there is no good reason to put in new two-lane bridge on an access route that only carries about 300 vehicles per day.

School buses and emergency vehicles don’t use the bridge because the NCDOT has downgraded its weight-bearing capacity to three tons, roughly the weight of an SUV.

Pam Williams, the NCDOT’s engineer for the project, said the disagreement between her department and the residents boils down to a policy issue.

“DOT has a policy of not putting in one-lane bridges and they wanted us to look at the possibility of doing that,” Williams said.

Williams said the bridge has been up for historical designation three times and not been included on the register. Without a historic designation the bridge is not likely to be maintained in the state road system. As of 2009 there were only 36 truss bridges left on NCDOT-maintained roads.

“They do consider it an historic and iconic bridge and I understand that, but it is a truss bridge and truss bridges are considered fracture critical. In North Carolina we don’t build truss bridges anymore,” Williams said.

Abbot said that in the case of bridges with strong sentimental value, the NCDOT often uses its bridge relocation and reuse program to move the bridge to a place where it can be maintained and utilized by private or public entities for non-highway uses.

McCoy Bridge came into the NCDOT system in 1960 but it is believed to have been built in the late 1920s or early 1930s, according to Woodward. It is an example of a Pratt Through Truss Bridge, a common technology for early steel span bridges.

Woodward understands that the NCDOT doesn’t want a single span truss bridge in its system, but he pointed out that many states have found ways to preserve and utilize truss bridges. Iowa has over 1,400 truss bridges in operation, Woodward said.

To Woodward, the issue comes down to logic. The bridge is beautiful and it serves a small community with little potential for traffic increases. Why get rid of a nice bridge with historic value when a new bridge isn’t needed?

“If it can’t be rehabilitated adequately there are other ways to bring it up to a load-bearing standard that is not limiting school buses or emergency vehicles,” Woodward said. “The DOT would put a $4.6 million bridge in that location with 80 percent federal funding which would essentially be a concrete slab.”

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