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.