The N.C. Department of Transportation took grand steps during 2016 in the western mountains toward goals set forth in Governor Pat McCrory’s 25-year Vision for transportation.
The transportation team comprised of the 10 westernmost counties created new infrastructure, enhanced existing roadways, boosted mobility, reduced congestion and improved safety in Division 14, which consists of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Polk, Swain and Transylvania counties.
The completion of a new bridge on Howell Mill Road over Richland Creek drew Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson to an event to celebrate Art That Moves You — an initiative championed by Governor McCrory designed to incorporate local creative designs into traditional construction projects.
“This is the kind of investment that will pay off for decades to come,” Tennyson said during the celebration.
Residents in the area and visitors from out of town are benefitting from projects that improve connections, provide more opportunities for economic growth and increase access to health care, educational opportunities and places for recreation.
“We were very proactive in fixing things before they become real problems,” Division Engineer Ed Green said. “It’s similar to doing maintenance on your car. It’s better to change your oil and do routine maintenance rather than wait for your engine to lock up.”
Crews for Division 14 paved 350 miles of road in the past year including the fabled Cherohala Skyway, a 40-mile National Scenic Highway that climbs from 900 feet to 5,400 feet above sea level.
“Everyone in Division 14 is proud of our accomplishments and glad to keep making progress toward the Governor’s vision,” Division Engineer Ed Green said. “We face challenges every day in this region with the mountain terrain, yet the work we do helps connect people and makes travel routes safer and faster.”
Crews repaired or replaced 53 bridges and culverts in the 10 counties. Many provided a safer route for residents in rural mountain areas. Others, like Howell Mill Road, included a sidewalk that allows bikers and pedestrians to share the road.
“A lot of the projects were about preserving the infrastructure that we already had in place,” Division Project Development Engineer Brian Burch said. “We brought bridges and roads up to standard, we modernized, and we improved safety.”
One of the most comprehensive safety improvements in North Carolina concluded in time for Labor Day weekend travelers to get from Knoxville to Asheville on Interstate 40 without interruption. A team removed part of a mountainside in the Pigeon River Gorge near mile post 7 to prevent a rockslide that could have closed down the western artery for months.
During construction, crews removed more than 110,000 tons of rocks; inserted 20-foot steel rods; installed new drainage and constructed a new median. Also in the area, new high-efficiency lights started beaming down in the two tunnels near the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
Other projects improved capacity including the widening of N.C. 107, which connects to Southwestern Community College, and the creation of climbing lanes on U.S. 64 in Clay County.
Additional projects to enhance safety, increase capacity and improve infrastructure are planned for 2017
Work will continue in Transylvania County on the Davidson River Connecter, which will allow residents to take a new route around the old Ecusta site while allowing visitors easier access to Pisgah National Forest.
In Haywood County, construction will continue on N.C. 209 in Waynesville and likely conclude by the end of the year. In Polk County, construction will continue on U.S. 64 in advance of the 2018 World Equestrian Games with a roundabout in front of the Tryon International Equestrian Center finished by the fall. In Clay County, construction of climbing lanes on U.S. 64 are also expected to be finished next year.
Various agencies — from local, state and federal stakeholders — will continue conversations and share conceptual designs about Corridor K. The proposed project, which has been in various stages of discussions for decades, is a transit road through an environmentally sensitive area. Corridor K has the potential to be a major boost to Graham County with business impacts reaching from Chattanooga to Asheville.
“2017 should be another good year,” Green said. “We’ll finish up some important projects and break ground on others.”