A proposed four-lane highway through a mountainous region of Graham County has suffered a setback.
The N.C. Department of Transportation was nearing the final planning stages and hoped to start construction in a few years on what is commonly known as Corridor K. But the project has been sent back to the drawing board to consider whether a two-lane option could achieve the same purpose as a new four-lane highway.
The roadblock has come from the Army Corp of Engineers, which has to sign off on various environmental permits for the highway. The Corp ruled that the DOT did not properly consider all the alternatives, however. The Corps wrote in a letter to the DOT that “upgrading and improving existing two-lane roadways should be given full consideration as a practical alternative.”
The DOT was supposed to weigh the pros and cons of various options in an environmental analysis — as required by federal law for projects of this magnitude — but a two-lane highway relying partially on existing roads was not included in the 2008 study.
“A massive, four-lane highway through the mountains of this region is overkill, both in terms of the price tag and environmental harm. It’s great news the agencies are considering more reasonable alternatives,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville.
The idea for a four-lane highway through the counties west of Asheville had been on the books for decades and is mostly completed except for a missing link of 17 miles through Graham County — the most remote and rugged stretch.
At public hearing on the road last fall, critics of the new highway far outnumbered supporters. They cited the environmental impacts of a new four-lane highway and loss of historical rural character of Stecoah Valley.
But to supporters, the highway would bring sorely lacking economic development and benefit commerce in a county that currently has no four lanes roads leading in or out.
In North Carolina, the DOT’s own studies show that improvements to existing two-lane highways will easily handle the projected traffic for decades to come.
“They can’t ignore an alternative that costs half as much and avoids paving through an environmental treasure. Federal law is clear on this,” Gerken said.
Only 10 miles of the 17-mile missing link are currently in the planning stages — a section leading north out of Robbinsville over Stecoah Gap. The 10-mile section would cost $378 million and cut a more than half-mile long tunnel under the Snowbird Mountains, requiring excavation of 3 million cubic yards of rock.
“A new four-lane highway through sensitive mountain habitat would have unacceptably destructive impacts to wildlife habitat and water quality,” said Hugh Irwin with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition in Asheville. “Upgrading existing highways has always made the most sense.”
Chris North with the North Carolina Wildlife Federation cited the impacts to public lands, including trails, trout streams, hunting areas and campgrounds.
Environmental organizations are lauding the Army Corp for not rubber stamping the project but instead requiring due diligence by the DOT.
“We are grateful that the Corps has heard our voice and the voices of others in the region,” said Lucy Bartlett, chairman of WaysSouth, an organization solely focused on reducing the footprint of new highway construction in the mountains.
The DOT could still theoretically get approval for the four-lane highway after going back and analyzing the two-lane option if they can prove the two-lane would not do the job.
Graham County delivered yet another jolt to the three-month debate over who should provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap, a motorcycle mecca in a satellite portion of Swain County that sees serious wrecks each year.
Graham commissioners voted 3-2 at its latest meeting to stop providing rescue and law enforcement to the Swain County territory starting Jan 1. Graham routinely handled all emergency calls to the remote area as a favor to Swain, but grew tired of providing the service and demanded $80,000 annually from Swain as compensation. Swain refused, however, prompting Graham’s surprise move to end services.
“The negotiations just don’t seem to be going anywhere,” said Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom. “They need to realize that that is their county. If they are genuinely concerned, they’re going to have to get out their checkbook. We can’t continue to do it for nothing.”
Since Swain doesn’t seem eager to pay up, Odom suggests that a part of the $195,000 Swain gets in property taxes from Deal’s Gap be used to set up an EMS substation to ensure quick response times once Swain has to take over the calls. It currently takes Swain from 45-50 minutes to reach the Deal’s Gap area.
At Monday’s county commissioner’s meeting, Swain County Manager Kevin King said the cost of installing such a substation in Deal’s Gap would be “astronomical” considering that there are only 34 homes and businesses in the area. The emergency calls to the area, however, stem from hordes of tourists riding sports cars and motorcycles on the famed twisty roads in the region known as the Hellbender and Tail of the Dragon.
One possible solution is to expedite the setup of a proposed substation in the western part of Swain County, which would cut response times to Deal’s Gap to 35-40 minutes. King said Blount County in Tennessee has comparable response times to similar wrecks on the other side of the state border near Deal’s Gap.
Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, said while that response times may not be the best at first, the county would “iron the kinks out” in time.
At the same meeting, Graham County also voted unanimously to end trash pickup services for Deal’s Gap, breaking a $21,000 annual contract with Swain County. While Graham claimed the service actually costs close to $36,000, Jones said he doubts the bill will go over a third of the original $21,000.
Swain County had contracted that service out to Graham since its garbage trucks pass by the Deal’s Gap area anyway. But King said he will now look at how Swain County can take over the garbage pickup services itself.
Swain continues to point out that it responds to calls in the Graham County portion of the Tsali Recreation Area, a popular area for mountain bikers, and provides ambulance transport for Graham residents who end up in Swain’s hospital — both of which balance out Graham’s assistance in Deal’s Gap, Swain claims.
Another unanimous vote from Graham at its last meeting, however, resolved to take over the transport of its residents from Swain County Hospital to other area hospitals.
Meanwhile, Swain County plans to continue providing services in the Tsali area.
During the negotiations, Swain had offered to station an ambulance in Deal’s Gap during heavy traffic weekends and give Graham a discount to house any overflow prisoners in the Swain jail, offering to charge $40 instead of $50 per day. The offer was somewhat self-serving, as Swain would like to lure Graham to house prisoners in its new jail, which is struggling financially.
Odom said Graham County is still open to hearing other offers from Swain before the year’s end.
While Swain County Commissioners have not voted yet on a resolution on Deal’s Gap, no one brought up the idea of renegotiating with Graham at the latest meeting.
“It’s kind of like we’re beating a dead horse,” said Jones. “I think they know and we know, we don’t have $80,000.”
A road project known as Corridor K will boast the longest tunnel in the state of North Carolina if built as planned: a 2,807-foot passage through the side of a mountain in the Stecoah area of Graham County.
Construction on a missing section of Corridor K including the tunnel is slated to start in 2014, although the timeline is admittedly “ambitious,” according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation Division 14, a 10-county mountain region.
The highway will be the first four-lane road blazed into Robbinsville. The tiny town and county seat of Graham is currently accessible only by winding two-lane roads no matter how you approach it.
Once finished, Corridor K would also offer a bypass of sorts around the Nantahala Gorge, which currently acts as a two-lane bottleneck when traveling to the Andrews and Murphy area.
The missing link of Corridor K — roughly 17 miles in Graham County — has been held up for years due to funding and environmental challenges, according to Setzer.
The missing section is being tackled in two parts: 10 miles heading north out of Robbinsville along N.C. 143 and 7 miles heading south of Robbinsville that would lead into the Andrews area.
The 10-mile section north of Robbinsville, which includes the tunnel under Stecoah Gap, is nearing the final planning stages. It is estimated at $378 million. Of that, nearly $200 million is for the tunnel.
The 10-mile stretch currently being pursued will severely impact the rural character of Stecoah Valley. It will spill into the Nantahala National Forest, skirt the Appalachian Trail, degrade viewsheds and damage the environment.
Yet the promise of a four-lane highway through territory currently lacking one has been pushed for by leaders in the region.
A public hearing on the route will be held Oct. 29 in Robbinsville, with an open house to preview the plans on Oct. 27 in Cullowhee. More information on the time and place will be posted in later editions.
Two accommodations have been proposed to lessen the environmental impacts. One is the tunnel, which will burrow under the Appalachian Trail so hikers don’t have to across the highway. The other is an elevated bridge 80 feet in the air when passing over Stecoah Creek and the valley floor.
The entire Corridor K highway is a 127-mile route through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, forging one of the first four-lane highways through rural mountain counties. U.S. 23-74 around Waynesville and continuing past Sylva and on to Bryson City — known to locals as the “bypass” — is part of the original Corridor K vision dating back to the 1970s.
Graham County has thrown a curve ball in an ongoing debate with Swain County over ambulance service in Deal’s Gap, a motorcycle mecca that sees a disproportionately large share of wrecks.
Deal’s Gap is an outlying area of Swain County, so far-flung that it takes an ambulance 45 minutes to reach it from Swain County. The area is much closer to Graham, which has historically provided emergency services to the area as a courtesy.
Graham and Swain are at a stalemate in negotiations over whether Graham should be compensated for providing the service within Swain’s borders. Swain thus far has refused to ante up, claiming it already provides a quid pro quo by transporting Graham residents who end up in the Swain County Hospital.
In a surprise move on Tuesday, Graham informed Swain that it would not answer emergency calls to Deal’s Gap over Labor Day weekend. Graham will have its hands full responding to calls within its own borders, they said.
Swain County Manager Kevin King said the news came as a surprise, since the two counties were still in talks and Graham previously said it would give Swain time to make arrangements to cover the area if they couldn’t come to another resolution.
King said Swain County generally has two ambulances in service at any given time. A third ambulance that usually serves as back-up will be posted in the Deal’s Gap area for the Labor Day weekend.
King said Swain will also be willing to help out Graham if they are stretched too thin.
“If they need our help, we will be right there,” King said.
Swain will continue transporting Graham residents receiving treatment at Swain’s hospital.
“We are not going to play that game with them,” King said.
Swain and Graham county commissioners agreed Monday to let their respective county managers look at solid numbers before deciding on a resolution to the Deal’s Gap quandary.
Graham County, which provides rescue service to the satellite Swain County territory and motorcycle mecca, wants Swain to contribute financially for the service, take care of its own terrain despite the distance or cede the 1,900-acre area to Graham.
Meanwhile, Swain has countered that it loses money each time it transports Graham County residents and those injured in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area— one of the nation’s premier mountain biking destinations — from its Bryson City hospital on to larger hospitals in Sylva and Asheville. These patients end up in Swain County’s hospital because Graham County does not have a hospital of its own.
Contrary to what Graham County had originally asserted, Swain County Manager Kevin King claimed Swain was the real financial loser on the two counties’ mutual aid agreement.
King presented the results of his research to the two boards at the second meeting called specifically to address this issue.
Assuming that the county recoups the typical 70 percent of its expenses from the patients it transfers to hospitals, each ambulance trips equals a loss of $214 for the counties, according to King.
Last year, Swain County made 55 trips to the Tsali area and 110 trips transporting Graham County patients from Bryson City to bigger hospitals. That would mean a total loss of more than $35,000 for Swain County.
On the other hand, Graham County made 29 trips to the Deal’s Gap area last year, which according to King’s calculations, signifies that Graham County lost a bit more than $6,000 last year.
But Graham County Manager Lynn Cody said the expense is much greater than that.
“It’s costing little over $100,000 to compensate our EMS, fire and rescue service and our law enforcement,” said Cody.
King said Graham County has not backed up that figure thus far.
“Up to this point, they have not proven it,” said King. “I’m empathetic to what they’re saying. I just don’t think it’s costing them what they’re saying it costs.”
According to Cody, however, the final figure must take into account the added costs associated with Graham County ambulances making a long trip on windy roads to arrive at an accident scene, only to find both the victim and motorcycle missing. Furthermore, some of the injured refuse to be treated after the ambulance has already arrived. In these not so rare occurrences, Graham County can’t bill anyone for their trip, leading not only to a loss of time and money, but also more wear and tear on their vehicles.
Terry Slaughter, EMS director for Graham County, agreed that responding to calls at Deal’s Gap has not exactly been easygoing, even if it is only an issue in the summertime when throngs of motorcyclists crowd the roads there.
“It’s a little more time consuming than just a typical call where you pick up someone at their home,” said Slaughter. But fortunately, they have never had a situation where ambulances were too tied up at Deal’s Gap to respond to calls in Graham County, thanks in part to mutual aid agreements with other counties, he said.
Out of Swain County’s $11 million budget this year, about $798,000 has been allocated to EMS. Meanwhile. Graham County expends about $884,000 of its $12.6 million budget on EMS services.
Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, said he hoped the two counties would carry on with the status quo.
“I would like to see us get along together and continue a mutual agreement,” Jones said. “[But] if we have to go it alone, we probably are prepared to do that.”
If Swain County took over rescue service at Deal’s Gap, its ambulances would have to travel nearly 50 minutes to respond to calls. The only other option would be to put up an EMS substation in Deal’s Gap.
Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said he would be willing to give Swain County six months to prepare an such a facility.
But Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said it would be hard to pull off that special service for 8 full-time residents out of about 13,500 residents in Swain County.
“I don’t see that we could justify it to the taxpayer,” said Monteith.
King said that people who move into the outskirts of Swain County, like Deal’s Gap, realize what they’re getting themselves into.
“They know when they buy that property where EMS is, where law enforcement is, where the courthouse is,” King said.
Swain stands to lose $195,000 in annual tax revenue from the 34 homes and businesses in Deal’s Gap if it were taken over by Graham County.
Odom said Graham County is not following through on its annexation proposal at this point, but it isn’t yet out of the question. He said Graham is fully prepared to petition the state legislature to move county lines.
“If they failed to give us enough money, if they fail to take care of it yes, then I don’t know why we shouldn’t pursue it, “ said Odom. “Even if it’s a long drawn-out process, I think the argument is on our side.”
Ben Steinberg, general manager at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, said he doesn’t see a need for Graham County to take over since he doesn’t mind living in isolation.
“This area, while it may not offer the creature comforts of modern life, it’s a small price to pay for the beauty of the natural surroundings,” said Steinberg. “We run to town once a week, get all the things we need. Our sign out front says population 8, and we absolutely love it.”
Steinberg said even if Graham County did annex the territory, life in Deal’s Gap probably wouldn’t change drastically.
“I’m not sure either community will be able to provide all the services we would need,” Steinberg said.
Swain and Graham counties are at odds over who should provide rescue service to the isolated Deals Gap territory, a dispute that could lead to a redrawing of county lines.
The Deal’s Gap area is a satellite territory of Swain County, lying on the other side of Lake Fontana and surrounded by Graham.
Deal’s Gap is home to the infamous Tail of the Dragon, a stretch of U.S. 129 sporting 318 curves in just 11 miles. Motorcyclists and sports car drivers flock to the road from across the country to race the mountain curves. The result is lots of wrecks, requiring rescue service to an otherwise remote area. Until now, Graham has taken on the burden of responding to wrecks since it is so much closer.
“When it started getting popular, what was no more than four or five calls a year at most has turned into a nightmare,” said Steve Odom, the chairman of Graham County commissioners.
Graham County has grown weary of providing rescue, fire and law enforcement to the increasingly popular area and getting nothing in return.
“Graham County is trying to be a good neighbor, but it has gotten to the point where it has exceeded the good neighbor part,” said Lynn Cody, Graham County manager.
Graham is giving Swain County three options: move the county line so that Deal’s Gap is part of Graham, pay an annual fee to Graham County, or station their own rescue personnel and law enforcement in the area.
“If we are going to take care of it, we should just have it part of Graham County,” said Sandra Smith, a Graham County commissioner. Smith proposed petitioning the state legislature to redraw the county line. But they decided to first sit down with Swain County leaders before running to Raleigh.
Graham and Swain county commissioners met on Tuesday (July 28) to discuss the issue.
Swain County will likely fight any attempt by Graham to take over the territory — or the property tax revenue that goes with it. Swain collects $195,000 a year in property taxes from the 1,900-acre territory.
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he would rather the county provide emergency services to the area themselves — despite the long distance — than cede territory to Graham County or pay an annual fee.
“Let’s face it. Every county is scrambling for money and their piece of the pie,” said Brad Talbot, owner of Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. Talbot agrees that both counties have legitimate issues to work out, however.
Tit for tat
Graham County leaders claim their residents are bearing the burden of providing services in Swain County and need money — whether it’s the property tax revenue from Deal’s Gap or an annual contribution from Swain — to offset their costs.
“It all boils down to finances,” Odom said.
Graham County responds to an average of 30 wrecks a year on the Swain County portion of the Tail of the Dragon, many of them with serious injuries that tie up medics and ambulances for hours.
Swain County countered that patients are billed for ambulance service, so the county recoups most of their costs. But not all patients pay up, resulting in a net loss, Smith said. And other patients decide to drive to the hospital on their own or are treated by medics at the scene and never taken to the hospital, so the county is unable to bill them at all.
“That’s a lose situation for us because we don’t get paid for it. It is a dead run,” Odom said.
Graham budgeted $890,000 on EMS services last year and only collected $725,000 from patients.
According to David Breedlove, the emergency services director for Swain, no county is able to break even on emergency services.
While Graham County presented charts and dispatch logs showing the number of calls and accidents its people responded to in Deal’s Gap, Swain County countered with some facts and figures of its own. Since Graham County has no hospital, many patients from there are brought to the hospital in Bryson City. Many are then sent on to the larger hospitals in Sylva or Asheville, a service provided by Swain County’s ambulances. Swain County provides transport for an average of 100 Graham County residents a year from the Bryson City hospital to their final destination.
Breedlove said it balances out the services Graham provides in Deal’s Gap.
Swain County commissioners mostly listened during the meeting on Tuesday as Graham County leaders laid out their position. The two boards decided to reconvene at 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 24, in Robbinsville.
“We got a lot of the plate. We’ve got to digest some if it,” said Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County commissioners.
What is Swain doing all the way out there?
The Deal’s Gap territory is technically part of Swain County, even though it lies on the other side of Fontana Lake, isolated from the rest of the county and surrounded by Graham County.
It hasn’t always been that way, however. The convoluted geography dates back to the creation of Lake Fontana. The Little Tennessee River once served as the county line between Swain and Graham. When the river was dammed up and a vast territory along the lakeshore was ceded to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Deal’s Gap area became inaccessible to the rest of Swain County without driving all the way around the lake and through Graham County to get there.