“The majority of comments were not in favor of constructing that connector, but even the ones that were in favor also mentioned the need for addressing pedestrian and bicycle accommodations and trying to improve traffic flow on the lower portion of the road,” said Jonathan Woodard, district engineer for the DOT.
The meeting drew 38 members of the public, with 22 of them submitting written comments, Woodard said. Of the comments, nine were in favor of the connector and 13 were opposed.
Opponents were concerned that the plan — which would have built a few hundred feet of road connecting the end of Ledbetter to Monteith Gap, forming a loop — would have only transferred the problem on Ledbetter to Monteith Gap, without actually fixing the problem.
Now, the DOT has refocused its efforts to improving the lower end of Monteith Gap Road, where it intersects with Ledbetter and South Painter Road before emptying out to Old Cullowhee Road. The improvements will include replacing the bridge over Cullowhee Creek and installing pedestrian and bicycle accommodations.
This area of Cullowhee, characterized by narrow, winding roads, has been a cause for concern in recent years as more and more student housing developments have popped up, deploying hundreds of cars — as well as students biking and walking to campus — onto a rural road not built to handle that kind of use. The issue came to a head last year when a Western Carolina University student hit 40-year-old Daniel Brown as he walked along Ledbetter, killing him.
Reaction was swift, with Jackson County Commissioners passing a resolution that same month asking the state legislature to release money for road improvements in the area. It would take a lot of money to truly fix all the safety issues on Ledbetter, commissioners reasoned, but a smaller sum of money to build a connector road could go a long way toward relieving some of the pressure from that route.
However, the community — and, ultimately, the DOT — felt that a connector road wouldn’t be the best solution, and the DOT is now switching gears to plan for a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly remodel of lower Monteith Gap Road.
The department has the $220,000 that had been allocated for the connector road to work with and has identified additional funding for the bridge replacement, Woodard said. An engineering firm has been hired to do some of the preliminary work, with survey and design phases still to come. Woodard anticipates letting the contract sometime in 2019 with the project complete sometime in 2020.
Any new sidewalks built would tie into those already going in with the bridge replacement on Old Cullowhee Road.
“It would connect to that sidewalk and it would extend those pedestrian and bicycle facilities out to the intersection of Monteith Gap and Ledbetter Road,” Woodard said.
However, the improvements would fall far short of providing a complete walking route from housing along Ledbetter Road to the university. Ledbetter itself wouldn’t get any sidewalks, and the new sidewalks going in along Old Cullowhee Road would extend only a couple hundred feet past its intersection with Monteith Gap Road — leaving a significant distance between campus and where the sidewalk ends.
That’s not to say that the DOT isn’t aware that more sidewalk is needed. It’s just not in the scope of the current project. Ultimately, the department would like to see sidewalks all along Ledbetter and up to campus — but sidewalks cost money, and there are always too many projects competing for too little cash.
“I can’t really speak to a schedule on when it would happen, but I think it’s an identified need to continue those accommodations on out,” Woodard said of future sidewalks construction in the area. “I think that’s going to be something the DOT will try to pursue.”