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Wednesday, 11 April 2007 00:00

May the North Shore Road rest in peace

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Swain County native Heath Shuler is doing his home county a favor by putting together a powerful congressional coalition to support a cash settlement in lieu of building the controversial North Shore Road. Truthfully, there’s little chance that this road was ever going to get built, so taking a $52 million payout seems a much smarter option than holding out hope that a decades-old promise would ever be kept.

 

Shuler, a Democrat who now lives in Waynesville, held a press conference last week to announce the support of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-NC, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in his efforts to solve the North Shore Road conundrum. Shuler’s roots, along with the clout of Alexander and Dole, may finally resolve an issue that has bedeviled Congress and this region for decades.

There’s little defense against those who say a cash settlement instead of a road would prove the government a liar. They are absolutely right. When this road was promised during World War II, patriotism won out over reason. No one wanted to hold up the construction of a dam that would power factories to produce armaments and manufactured goods. Families were moved off their land for the lake, then the Tennessee Valley Authority donated the land on the north shore of the lake to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Those families whose homeplaces were left stranded in the park were promised a replacement road, and they never got it.

Time kept moving, one generation passed away, and still there is no road. Despite the best efforts by many powerful lawmakers it never happened. Former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and just-defeated Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, both powerful men in Congress, could not get support for the money to construct the road. The completed road is estimated to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars — some say up to $600 million — a price tag that kept many from supporting the project. Many national groups who act as watchdogs on congressional spending oppose the road.

In addition to the huge cost, environmental factors weigh heavily against the prospect of this road ever being built. Once the TVA turned the land over to the national park back in the 1940s, road proponents surely realized their prospects had dimmed. As the environmental movement has picked up steam over the last several decades there has been increasing pressure to preserve large undisturbed tracts of forests. Opposition to the road has come from local and national environmental groups, and many of those have promised a protracted lawsuit should the federal government ever go ahead with construction plans.

A viable alternative, one this newspaper has supported in the past, is to build a partial road a mile or so past the completed tunnel. Put in a visitor center that explains the history of the displaced families, perhaps a campground, and upgrade the trails leading to the historical areas. This plan, though, has never won much support from either side in the North Shore Road debate.

When all this history is studied, it becomes clear that Shuler’s plan has the most chance for success. No road is ever going to be built, and yes, the government is reneging on its promise. Sometimes reality is tough, but the prospect of a cash settlement of $50 or $60 million for Swain County holds a lot of promise. This is the most reasonable solution to a controversy that needs to be laid to rest.

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