Residents value rural heritage and environment in highway debate
An overwhelming majority of citizens who showed up at a public hearing in Robbinsville spoke out against the Corridor K road project last Thursday (Oct. 29).
The proposed four-lane highway would supplant the winding, two-lane roads that are currently the only means of access to Graham County. In the process, it would bore a half-mile long tunnel — the longest in the state — through a mountain. It would also tower over the rural Stecoah Valley area.
Corridor K, a 127-mile route through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, has been in the works for more than three decades. The DOT wants to start construction by 2014 on a 10-mile section of the 17-mile missing link in Graham County.
The road’s three goals are to bring economic development, end a geographic isolation N.C. DOT sees as dangerous, and improve steep and curvy roads that currently feature inadequate shoulders.
The highway would take the thousands of tractor-trailers out of the Nantahala Gorge, which is currently the main artery to reach Murphy but is clogged with buses loaded with rafters and kayakers.
David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner, said the new highway would increase tourism in Swain County, bringing more people in to raft the Nantahala and ride the train.
“It would bring in more people to Western North Carolina, period,” said Monteith.
But only two of the 22 speakers at the N.C. Department of Transportation hearing piped up in favor of the road. The rest enumerated every conceivable reason for why the road has no place in Graham County.
Bob Grove said the proposed roadway would not help Graham County’s economy. It would more likely provide easy access to a big-box chain stores like Wal-Mart than to downtown stores. For Grove, the highway provides an open invitation to local residents to head out of town to do their shopping.
Grove and many others suggested that it would be far less expensive and less destructive to improve the existing roads, rather than build a highway that would destroy the town’s main draw for tourists: scenic, winding two-lane roads.
Tom Hoffman of Virginia said he might stop coming to Graham County if the highway is built and that he would not return to “ooh and aah at a freeway interchange.”
Many voiced concerns about Robbinsville losing its rural character and transforming into yet another American “Clonesville,” with strip malls, billboards and fast-food chains lining the streets.
Others who objected said second home owners, who would surely come with the highway, would jack up tax values and drive out today’s local residents.
“It’s a euphemistic thing to be calling it economic development,” said Brian Rau of Stecoah. “To me, it’s just plain development.”
The issue hit close to home for Guy Roberts, who would lose the property that’s been in his family for five generations and more than a hundred years.
“We would like to preserve what is there for future generations,” said Roberts’ son-in-law Jeff Phillips. “I want to be able to fish with my grandchildren and have horses and cows they can play with. I want to be there for the rest of my life.”
A telling example of Graham County’s position came at two points in the night. Nearly everybody raised their hands when asked if they were against the road. When Melbe Millsaps asked who actually worked in Graham County, only a handful went up.
Millsaps said even though Corridor K would cut through her property, it would also provide more jobs and better access to education and healthcare for Graham County. Millsaps said she knows how dangerous the roads there can be after being forced to commute two hours each way to get to her nursing school.
“I think it’s time for Graham County to move into the 21st century and build the road,” Millsaps said.
Denny Mobbs, who lives in Ocoee, Tenn., agreed and said it’s time to bring some development into Graham County.
“We don’t want a pristine impoverishment,” said Mobbs.
Others worried about the road’s environmental impact, including air, noise and water pollution. The tunnel, which would be a major expense of the project, avoids the Appalachian Trail by going under it.
Melanie Mayes, a Knoxville geologist, said the N.C. DOT had not released any information about the possibility of landslides and acid leaching out of rocks.
Mayes pointed out that there was not even a single geologic map on the environmental impact study that was released. When Lewis said the N.C. DOT would give her all that information, Mayes retorted that it should have been released long ago.
Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom reminded citizens that even though Corridor K is controversial, they should realize that the county’s roads do need to be fixed in some way.
“It’s dangerous, I tell you,” said Odom. “You folks have a lot to debate, but we have some immediate needs, too.”
Weigh in on Corridor K
Let the N.C. DOT know what you think about the Corridor K Project by Dec. 4.
Corridor K brings anywhere America right here to WNC
By Brent Martin • Guest Columnist
When President John F. Kennedy formed a federal-state committee in 1963 known as the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission, one out of every three people living in Appalachia was living below the poverty line. Millions of Appalachians were fleeing for work in other regions, and per capita income was 23 percent lower than the U.S. average.
One of the solutions proposed by the ARC was to build over 3,000 miles of roads into Appalachia, roads that would bring jobs, wealth and modernization. And the roads did come. The alphabet soup of highway projects that came out of the ARC are visible everywhere in Appalachia today —– Corridor B, for example, or more commonly known as Interstate 26, was completed in 2003 at a cost of $250 million —– for the last nine miles of highway blasted through mountains from Asheville to Tennessee.
A small segment of Corridor K, which the ARC and NC DOT are working to complete, will come at a similar cost. Ten miles of Corridor K will come with a price tag of $350 million of federal and state tax dollars to blast a road from the Stecoah community through the Nantahala National Forest to Robbinsville. The ostensible reason for building the road is that it will solve Graham County’s problems of unemployment, poverty and isolation. These are serious problems, particularly since Graham’s unemployment and poverty rates are higher than state averages. But will building a four-lane highway solve these problems? The NC DOT claims it will.
Specifically, the DOT claims that a new four-lane highway will attract businesses, make commuting to work out of the county faster and easier, lure tourists who enjoy “reduced travel time and increased accessibility,” and improve access to medical facilities. What the DOT does not acknowledge is that highway construction jobs bring only a temporary bump in local spending and that very few of those dollars would circulate locally. Large crews and specialized equipment skills required by such a large project will likely mean importing many contract workers. Small rural economies have small economic multipliers, so few of those dollars will remain in the local economy. Contract workers will send paychecks to their families back home, and likely travel there themselves during their time off. Since the increased spending is known to be temporary, new retail businesses are unlikely to invest in new or expanded local stores.
Even after the highway is finished, an interstate through an isolated rural area carries people out as well as in, and would likely encourage Graham County residents to do more of their shopping outside the local area.
Expanding highway capacity in hopes of attracting manufacturers takes a backward-looking view of both the U.S. economy as a whole and this region in particular. Manufacturing jobs have declined throughout North Carolina’s western mountain counties, from 37 percent of the workforce in 1970 to 10 percent in 2007. It is not likely that a new four-lane highway will bring those jobs back, especially as fuel prices continue to climb over the coming decades.
Solid long-term economic development is based on the inherent strengths of an area. For Graham County, that includes a strong rural work ethic and unsurpassed wild natural surroundings. An interstate will not contribute to the former, and it will seriously damage the latter.
Jack Schultz, author of Boom Town USA: The 7 Keys to Big Success in Small Towns, documents the increasing popularity of small rural towns as the fastest growing economies in the nation. Increasingly, entrepreneurs are moving to these places because of their natural beauty and small-town atmosphere, and they bring their businesses and their retirement incomes with them. Schultz names Highlands as one of the “Golden Eagles” — the top 100 “Agurbs” in the nation. Highlands’ location is very similar to Robinsville’s: it’s in a valley surrounded by Western North Carolina’s beautiful mountains and is at a similar distance from interstate access. Clearly, an interstate is not necessary for economic success in this part of the state
At the other end of the state, Tyrrell County is featured in another recent publication, Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities. The least populated of all North Carolina counties (Graham is 98th), Tyrrell County has chosen to turn its remoteness into a marketing advantage. The county bills itself as “unspoiled, uncrowded, uncomplicated,” with attractions ranging from red wolves to the Scuppernong River nature trail. Per-capita personal income has risen by 11 percent (after adjusting for inflation) since the Balancing Nature and Commerce book was written, and Tyrell County’s unemployment rate now ranks 42nd in the state compared to Graham County’s fourth (November. 2007 data).
According to the Graham County Chamber of Commerce web site, “Graham County, filled with Smoky Mountain adventures, is becoming better known every year. With a natural beauty still unspoiled by crowds, it is truly a rare find in today’s world.”
If Graham intends to keep it this way, the county had best ask the ARC to provide Graham with a cash alternative to this destructive highway, and invest instead in the long-term preservation of the goose that will hopefully continue to lay golden eggs for years to come. Strip malls, convenience stores, and chain restaurants that come with the type of highway DOT is proposing will only strangle the life out of it.
Corridor K inches forward
A road project known as Corridor K will boast the longest tunnel in the state of North Carolina if built as planned: a 2,807-foot passage through the side of a mountain in the Stecoah area of Graham County.
Construction on a missing section of Corridor K including the tunnel is slated to start in 2014, although the timeline is admittedly “ambitious,” according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation Division 14, a 10-county mountain region.
The highway will be the first four-lane road blazed into Robbinsville. The tiny town and county seat of Graham is currently accessible only by winding two-lane roads no matter how you approach it.
Once finished, Corridor K would also offer a bypass of sorts around the Nantahala Gorge, which currently acts as a two-lane bottleneck when traveling to the Andrews and Murphy area.
The missing link of Corridor K — roughly 17 miles in Graham County — has been held up for years due to funding and environmental challenges, according to Setzer.
The missing section is being tackled in two parts: 10 miles heading north out of Robbinsville along N.C. 143 and 7 miles heading south of Robbinsville that would lead into the Andrews area.
The 10-mile section north of Robbinsville, which includes the tunnel under Stecoah Gap, is nearing the final planning stages. It is estimated at $378 million. Of that, nearly $200 million is for the tunnel.
The 10-mile stretch currently being pursued will severely impact the rural character of Stecoah Valley. It will spill into the Nantahala National Forest, skirt the Appalachian Trail, degrade viewsheds and damage the environment.
Yet the promise of a four-lane highway through territory currently lacking one has been pushed for by leaders in the region.
A public hearing on the route will be held Oct. 29 in Robbinsville, with an open house to preview the plans on Oct. 27 in Cullowhee. More information on the time and place will be posted in later editions.
Two accommodations have been proposed to lessen the environmental impacts. One is the tunnel, which will burrow under the Appalachian Trail so hikers don’t have to across the highway. The other is an elevated bridge 80 feet in the air when passing over Stecoah Creek and the valley floor.
The entire Corridor K highway is a 127-mile route through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, forging one of the first four-lane highways through rural mountain counties. U.S. 23-74 around Waynesville and continuing past Sylva and on to Bryson City — known to locals as the “bypass” — is part of the original Corridor K vision dating back to the 1970s.