The N.C. Department of Transportation claims a four-lane highway is the only option that would meet the goal of bringing economic development and end the rural isolation that besets Graham County. The DOT contends a faster, safer transportation route is also needed through the region, something that only a four-lane highway will accomplish.
But state and federal environmental agencies claimed that the DOT had not sufficiently proved their case. Refusing to grant permits without better justification, the DOT was sent back to the drawing board in 2010 to more fully study the option of improving N.C. 143 leading into Robbinsville.
The DOT countered that simply dressing up the winding two-lane road through Graham County with an extra climbing lane here and there, wider shoulders and gentler curves isn’t really fixing the problem. But DOT had to “show their work” so to speak, and commissioned a study aimed at doing just that.
The result was a report prepared by Raleigh-based Stantec Consulting Resources. The conclusion wasn’t surprising: improving existing N.C. 143 is not a “practicable alternative,” the report states.
The study primarily concentrated on the plethora of environmental impacts that would result from widening existing N.C. 143 — claiming the environmental damage under that option is not much better than a new four-lane highway.
But the Southern Environmental Law Center cried foul. It got its hands on correspondence from the DOT to its consultants at Stantec that suggests the environmental impacts were intentionally overblown.
“They specifically instructed their contractor to ignore engineering solutions that would less those impacts — so what they ended up with was the worst possible case scenario to improve the existing route,” said DJ Gerken, an attorney with SELC in Asheville. “They really loaded the scale to make improving the existing option unpalatable.”
So SELC hired its own consulting company to assess improvements to the existing two-lane road and reached an entirely different conclusion.
“We saw the need to look at the two-lane option in a more realistic light by taking really off-the-shelf strategies DOT uses everywhere and applying them to that two-lane footprint and see what you get,” Gerken said.
The counter study was also funded in part by The Wilderness Society, the Western North Carolina Alliance, and WaysSouth.
A 2012 report by Maryland-based O’Connell and Lawrence challenged assumptions in the DOT-commissioned study and found the environmental impacts on a much lesser scale with a few engineering.
“Through the use of retaining walls, the total area of impact may be reduced by approximately 70 percent,” the report reads. “These grading modifications will also result in substantial reductions to the total amount of forest disturbance and stream disturbance.”
A major sticking point when considering the environmental impact of any new road is how it would cross the Appalachian Trail. The four-lane option blasts a half-mile tunnel underneath the trail, sparing the national scenic trail from a major road crossing. Meanwhile, improving the existing two-lane road would interrupt the trail, requiring a major trail crossing over four lanes, coupled with wide shoulders and deep cuts into the road bank, Stantec claimed.
The counter study, however, says that wouldn’t have to be the case if retaining walls were used instead of extensive grading, and options such as a pedestrian bridge could make it even smaller.