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Wednesday, 18 April 2012 19:52

Maggie wins out in which-way-to-Cherokee highway sign quandary

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Maggie Valley has emerged victorious in an ongoing tug-of-war with Jackson County over who can rightfully lay claim to tourists en route to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The N.C. Department of Transportation rejected a request from Jackson County leaders that a new highway sign direct Cherokee-bound travelers past their own doorstep instead of through Maggie. Instead the current sign, which takes motorists through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19, will remain the lone highway marker pointing the way to Cherokee for tourists coming off Interstate 40.

Cherokee leaders had sided with Jackson County and joined the push for a second sign that would direct visitors to take the four-lane Smoky Mountain expressway instead of the curvy two-lane road over Soco Gap. More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Maggie Valley leaders were happy to hear that DOT decided to maintain the status quo.

“It was certainly good news,” said Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone. “It didn’t seem there was any compelling reason to change it.”

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route than for U.S. 74.

“I am glad that they did come to the decision that they did,” said Maggie Alderman Phil Aldridge.

Leaders in Haywood County and in Maggie sent letters to the DOT asking them to deny Jackson County’s request, saying that the sign simply took from one and gave to another. The sign would take business and visitors away from an already struggling Maggie Valley, opponents of the new sign said.

“It definitely would have had an impact,” DeSimone said.

DOT, however, also denied Haywood County leaders’ apparent tongue-in-cheek request that it install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would inform travelers from the Atlanta area that they could reach Cherokee by going up and around through Waynesville and Maggie Valley. Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes some 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Jackson County leaders took the news about no-new-directional sign on U.S. 74 in diplomatic fashion.

“I’m not surprised with the final decision,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “It seems our request did not fit within their policies.”

Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said the county would not argue with the DOT regarding its decision.

“We’re OK with it,” Debnam said. “I just don’t think we’re going to qualify for a sign, and that’s just one of the battles you don’t pick. You’ve just got to let it go sometimes.”

The cost of a new sign had been estimated at about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempted to convey about the two dueling routes.

In a letter sent to everyone involved earlier this month, DOT Division Engineer Joel Setzer noted that the agency’s focus “was to look primarily at traffic safety, travel time and travel distance” along U.S. 74 and U.S. 19 when considering the request. Other factors considered were traffic crashes, routing by mapping services and average winter weather conditions along both routes.

DOT tried to craft a highway sign that would include both routes, listing things such as mileage, drive time and road conditions for each. But, that proved problematic.

“NCDOT recognized that the request (for a second sign) was reasonable and made sense but struggled with how a sign or series of signs could effectively communicate to high speed traffic that this choice was available,” the letter stated.

This difficulty, the DOT letter continued, “is the very reason that it is against policy.”

“To a motorist unfamiliar with the area, seeing two choices for one destination would cause confusion, which could create a dangerous situation in a high speed highway environment,” the letter stated.

The DOT also noted that the current sign meets state rules on sign placement because the U.S. 19 route is 11 miles shorter than traveling U.S. 74 to Cherokee.

The agency, in rejecting Haywood County leaders’ request for a sign in Dillsboro rerouting Cherokee traffic their way, said what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: the route proposed is longer and therefore violated state policies for road signs.

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