Win-win solution for N.C. mountain highway

The Nantahala National Forest in fall. (© Bill Lea)

Last week, the North Carolina Department of Transportation proposed a win-win solution to a problem that has bedeviled highway designers for decades. Originally conceived as a freeway-style highway that would cut through scenic mountains between Chattanooga and Asheville, "Corridor K" was unbuildable.

It would have slashed through steep mountain terrain, trout streams, and the pristine backcountry of the Nantahala National Forest. It also would have cost billions of dollars, despite low projected levels of traffic. With such steep impacts and costs, the project was incapable of securing needed permits or competing for funds.

SELC and our partners, WaysSouth, MountainTrue, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club, long advocated for a right-sized road, but for years the project was stalled, and local needs for a safe, reliable road went unmet.

The project's long, difficult history makes last week's milestone all the more remarkable. The new proposal will improve transportation and safety, protect and improve access for recreation, support local economies, and restore connectivity for wildlife like black bears. To get here, DOT worked closely with stakeholders at every step, including SELC and our partners, to solve problems and earn community support.

Source: Corridor K final Environmental Assessment

The new project will connect Robbinsville, NC, to the existing four-lane highway in Stecoah Valley, NC. Rather than blasting a new footprint through the mountains, the road will upgrade existing Highways 143 and 28, adding passing and climbing lanes for the full length. At Stecoah Gap, where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road, DOT will construct an innovative land bridge to protect hikers and wildlife alike.  

The plan is out for public comment and a virtual public hearing will be held on October 1, 2020, at 6-8pm. More details on the virtual public hearing are available here. Written comments can be submitted via phone, email or at NCDOT's public import portal by October 30, 2020.

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