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Help wanted: A better road map for WNC

coverAn ambitious yearlong exercise to create a collective economic vision for the mountains will decide whether a long-awaited $800 million highway through the rugged and remote far western end of the state is ever built. 

Carrying a consulting fee of $1.3 million, the visioning process is supposed to quantify the emotional and ancedotal arguments about the controversial highway known as Corridor K — and ultimately determine whether it lives or dies.


Project managers hope the undercurrents of Corridor K — laden with deep-seated controversy and ardently dug in battalions — won’t overshadow the process, however.

Instead, they are extending stakeholders in the seven western counties a broad invitation to dream big, think big and wish big when it comes to the region’s economic future.

“Everyone is tired of hearing the word ‘study,’” admitted Ben Brown, whose Franklin-based consulting firm Placemakers is playing a lead role.

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But this isn’t your average study, he went on.

For the first time ever, the far western counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Clay, Cherokee and Graham — will toss out old paradigms and craft a new economic future that recognizes just what the mountains truly are and what people want them to be.

The regional visioning process, known as Opportunity Initiative — or Opt-In for short — is being funded by state and federal highway dollars.

“This is a unique project. No one has ever attempted anything on this scale in such a rural area,” Brown said. 

A deep bench of consultants will sort, dissect and crash test all the ideas pouring in and amalgamate them into a decipherable blueprint. That’s where the rubber will really meet the road.

“It is important to get everyone’s perspective, but then try to knit it all together in some sort of coherent vision of a future we can all get behind,” said Dr. Michael Smith, a professor at Western Carolina University in the construction management program and part of the Opt-In leadership council.

Corridor K, a proposed four-lane highway traversing 18 miles of mountainous terrain in Graham County, is the final piece of an Appalachian highway system envisioned 50 years ago. It stitched together the seven, peak-packed western counties with the lofty goal of ushering economic prosperity into a depressed backwater with better, faster roads.

The missing link in Graham County — through Stecoah, past Robbinsville and back out to Andrews — was the steepest, most expensive, most environmentally challenging and most out of the way.

And thus it was left for last. With construction plans finally in hand, however, Corridor K ground to a screeching halt last year. State and federal environmental agencies refused to sign off on necessary permits. Without them, the highway can’t go forward.

Now, the Opt-In study aims to answer once and for all the question holding everything up: is the highway worth its $800 million price tag and the environmental damage?

Brown hopes Opt-In will transcend the baggage of Corridor K and lead to a unified future the region can buy into.

“They have to be willing to test their ideas and let the evidence demonstrate what the potential strategies are,” Brown said. “People don’t have to check their convictions at the door. They just have to be willing to have them analyzed.”

For years, the debate over Corridor K has been hypothetical. Supporters claim the four-lane highway in the far western counties will cure isolation and poverty, bringing better jobs, health care and education. 

Critics question the wisdom of following a course charted for the region in the 1960s as the best solution, however. A four-lane highway isn’t a sure-fire recipe for economic success — especially given the cost and environmental damage.

Until now, both sides have been left to argue over whether Corridor K is worth its costs with little to go on other than hunches.

“There is a reason there is only anecdotal evidence — because it costs a lot of money to do this kind of research,” Brown said.

Opt-In isn’t just a dreamy romp of what the future could hold for the seven western counties. It’s more tangible than that.

“Our task is to look at the region’s environmental, economic and transportation needs. Those are our three pillars. What does the region want and need in those three areas,” said Kristy Carter, an Appalachian Regional Commission liaison for the state. “The road planners can then come back and say what type of transportation system meets that vision.”

In the past, those issues have been tackled in a silo, Carter said.  It’s a sea change to put an economic vision first, and design transportation around it.

“Somehow there needs to be a way to attempt to establish a collective vision for the region if that is possible,” said Joel Setzer, head of a 10-county region of the N.C. Department of Transportation spanning the westernmost counties. “Transportation infrastructure needs to follow that vision.”

The study will prove invaluable for the region, according to Ryan Sherby, the director of the Southwestern Commission, a planning and development agency for the seven western counties that is acting as the project manager.

“Nothing will protect our region’s traditions of independence and self-reliance more than understanding where future opportunities and challenges are likely to come from and what strategies are necessary to steer us in the right direction,” Sherby said.

A team of more than a dozen consultants will do the sorting and crunching and quantifying. The big contract for the project went to the TWS consulting firm based in Atlanta but with a myriad of subcontractors to fill gaps in various specialties.

“It is a huge diverse team of experts for a wildly ambitious project for a rural area, one the region would not normally be able to attract or justify,” Brown said.

In that sense, the Opt-In initiative is a silver lining to the Corridor K controversy, since the money is coming from state and federal highway dollars in an attempt to resolve the million-dollar question.

The consultant team will use a different approach from the typical visioning process most people are familiar with. Instead of public hearings and big group brainstorming sessions, consultants will take to the road, visiting stakeholders in person to gather their input.

“We are spending an awful lot of energy going out and listening to people,” Brown said. “What are the things that concern them the most? What are their questions? We have a big enough team we can go out and say ‘if you do this, this is what it will look like?’ and then test those.”


The real deal?

The process will no doubt have its share of skeptics on both sides. Some fear the process is simply a stalling tactic to bury Corridor K once and for all.

Some fear the process is the middle school math equivalent of “showing your work.” You know the answer but have to justify how you got there. In other words, go through the motions to bring Corridor K to the finish line. 

But those hired to lead this colossal planning exercise swear it is legitimate.

The recommendations or ideas that emerge won’t be foisted on the region. Nothing is mandatory or imposed, Sherby said.

“The option to act or not to act on any of the work we do together is up to citizens and leaders,” Sherby said. “Our job is to help them get what they need to make informed choices.”

Some of the region’s best and brightest thinkers have been amassed as a Leadership Council for the process. They will talk up the merits of participating and help keep the brainstorms flowing. 

“What do we have to do to get from where we are to what we want to be?” asked Dr. Smith, the WCU professor.

Smith conjured up an old Greek proverb that’s just as applicable today as it was to ancient Mediterranean fishing villages.

“He not ruled by the rudder is ruled by the rocks,” Smith said. “If you aren’t steering your ship, you are destined for destruction. It is a great way to think about the importance of planning.”

This exercise stands out to Smith for its regional approach — something that is too often lacking.

“Most of the real challenges in the region are larger than the capability of any given entity to actually deal with them,” Smith said. “We need to think broadly across our region if we are going to come up with meaningful answers to help us be successful in the future.”

The study has its parameters though. It can’t totally lose sight of purpose — to bring that vision back around to transportation. But that’s still highly beneficial, Smith said. 

“What is it we want of this region, and how do we connect it in a way that allows it to be what we want it to be?” Smith asked.


Paving the way

Corridor K supporters are hopeful the study will provide the justification for the missing link of highway. 

“That was part of the charge. What would be the economic impact to Western North Carolina if they built that?” said Ken Mills, the economic development director of Swain County.

Mills sympathized with his neighbors in Graham County. Graham County leaders oft complain they’ve been denied their just due. Everyone else got their highway, while Graham County stayed at the bottom of the waiting list. There’s a reason for that though.

“The sections that haven’t been completed are the most difficult to complete,” Carter said.

The missing link through Graham County calls for a tunnel through a mountain that’s more than a half-mile long.

Mills recognizes that it’s a stretch to spend $800 million on a highway to bring economic progress to a county of just 8,000 people.

“Sure, there are thousands of counties that could say, ‘we need a four-lane road,’” Mills said.

But the Appalachian highway system was — and is — about more than that.

“The reason they devised this way back in the 60s was it was good to have an interstate commerce route on the south side of the mountains,” Mills said. “It was about, ‘How do you cross the Southern Appalachian mountains?’”

Mills only has to point to winter 2009 as proof that there simply aren’t enough transportation corridors punching through the mountains. Triple landslides simultaneously closed down Interstate 40, U.S. 441 and U.S. 64. The only way through the region was I-26 north of Asheville or heading down through Georgia. That winter showed just how vulnerable the regional economy is when transportation corridors are rendered impassable, Smith said.

“In a lot of cases, we are up against the amount of coping and amount of adaptability there is in the system,” Smith said.

Graham County’s leaders have been fighting for their slice of Corridor K for years. Isolated, rural and remote, Graham County is one of the most economically depressed counties in the mountains. It’s a plight often blamed on not having a four-lane highway.

“It seemed like our kids’ graduation gift is a suitcase,” said Mike Edwards, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.

The paradigm behind an Appalachian highway system can’t be totally discounted some 40 years later.

“The purpose was to decrease Appalachia’s isolation, and Graham County is the Appalachian region’s most isolated county. It snowballs into so many issues from health care to economy to education,” Carter said.

But Graham County can’t make its case alone, Edwards said.

“We don’t have the population to have the clout or voting bloc to have much to say,” Edwards said.

Corridor K has a nest egg of $270 million saved up for its construction thanks to a special federal funding stream for the Appalachian Highway system. But that funding stream dried up this year with no sign of being restarted.

What’s in the kitty is not nearly enough to cover construction. The project would have to compete for state highway construction dollars going forward.

Edwards said it has to be shown that Corridor K will help the entire region — not just Graham County — to have a fighting chance.

“We have to approach things regionally,” Edwards said. “Eight thousand people out in the middle of the mountains aren’t going to compete with Charlotte-Meck.”


Not so fast

Critics on the other side of the issue hope the Opt-In study isn’t a fait d’accomplis.

Among them is D.J. Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville, who’s been fighting Corridor K for several years.

Gerken questions the assumption of Corridor K as an  “economic magic bullet” for the region. There’s a much simpler, much cheaper and less damaging solution, he said.

After state and federal agencies put the breaks on the highway by refusing to issue environmental permits, a team of federal mediators was called in with hopes of breaking the impasse.

The environmental agencies had asked road builders to consider a scaled down version of Corridor K — a smaller, cheaper and less damaging design. They proposed an upgrade to the existing two-lane roads instead of brand-new super highway through sensitive mountain terrain. 

But the state and federal highway departments refused to budge.

Until — and unless — the road builders can prove their four-lane road is indeed superior, Corridor K is stalled.

Enter the Opt-In visioning process. But Gerken is skeptical of the motives. It is being funded by state and federal highway dollars after all.

If the study is indeed genuine, however, Gerken is ready to embrace it. 

“Nothing about an honest evaluation of this project causes me any concern. I am confident that a leaner project would show a similar economic development purpose,” he said. “Everything depends on the people doing it.”

To that end, Gerken trusts the Southwestern Commission to be unbiased and also trusts the consultant team that was chosen.

“I am suspending disbelief for now,” Gerken said. “It is a good opportunity to get some beneficial planning with funding at a level that is hard to come by. The study could have real value outside the Corridor K project.”

That’s one thing Gerken and DOT’s Joel Setzer seem to agree on.

“That’s where I see a lot of value in this effort. I hope folks will go out there and express opinions about what our region should be,” Setzer said.

There’s a catch, however. The money set aside so far for Corridor K — about $270 million — doesn’t have a lot of flexibility.

If access to health care or higher education is a concern for Graham County, why not spend the Corridor K money building a hospital or satellite college campus instead?

But it doesn’t work that way, Setzer said.

“The visioning effort is not an effort to see how we can spend $270 million in the region the best way,” Setzer said.

The $270 million in the kitty for Corridor K was a federal earmark intended for the build-out of an Appalachian highway system. 

“We have been pursuing that vision in a segmental way,” Setzer said.

To redirect the remainder of the money for other things — even if they’re shown to do more good for the region than faster highways — would take an act of Congress, Setzer said.

That gives some pause to supporters of Corridor K.

“If it is determined that the road is not worth that money, can we say, ‘Hey, here’s a great idea we can do instead?’ Or is that money going to disappear to someone else?” Mills asked.

But for now, players on both sides have little choice but to go forward with the process.

Despite being an ardent Corridor K supporter, Edwards said it’s time Graham County starts thinking of a plan B.

A born and bred mountain man, Edwards has plenty of colloquial sayings to that end. Graham can’t put all its eggs in one basket, or throw its paddle out in the middle of the pond. 

“We cannot go hitching our wagon to a star that doesn’t exist. If it does, all well and good, but we have to be prepared,” Edwards said. “If we don’t get the Corridor K, what do we do?”

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