Daniel Brown, 40, of Bryson City, was walking on Ledbetter Road during the wee hours of the morning June 9 when a car driven by Katelyn Nicholson, a 23-year-old Western Carolina University student, struck him. Nicholson and her 20-year-old passenger Danielle Hall continued driving north, earning misdemeanor charges for hit and run and obstruction of justice. Brown did not survive the incident.
“I live right across the river from where that young man got killed,” said Jack Debnam, who represents this region on the N.C. Board of Transportation. “I could see it from the back of my house. I know how hazardous that road is. It’s just not a good situation.”
According to reports from the N.C. Highway Patrol, Nicholson was not intoxicated and Brown’s state is unknown — alcohol testing results have not yet come back — but it’s not hard to believe such an accident could occur on Ledbetter. When it was built, the narrow, twisty, curvy mountain road was probably just fine to service the smattering of homes scattered along its length from its beginning at Monteith Gap Road to the dead-end where it finishes less than a mile later.
These days, that’s not the case. An explosion of student housing complexes has sprung up along its path, dumping large numbers of college students — some of whom aren’t the most mature of drivers, some of whom consume more alcohol before driving than they should — onto Ledbetter. As of 2014, student apartments located along the road contain more than 900 bedrooms, with a mobile home park containing 86 units located there as well. The most recent traffic count from the N.C. Department of Transportation, completed in 2013, logged an average daily traffic county of 3,000. These days, that number is likely higher.
The road doesn’t have shoulders or sidewalks, and in many places there’s a steep slope or riverbank bordering the edge, preventing even the possibility of a swerve. Add in some sharp curves that make visibility difficult, and you’ve got yourself a problem.
“Before they put that guardrail up (along the Tuckasegee River), I saw three cars in the river one winter right behind my house,” Debnam said.
Brown’s death catalyzed into a resolution that something must be done, and done sooner rather than later. In a June 28 meeting, Jackson County Commissioners endorsed a resolution asking the state legislature to release money for road improvements. The resolution asks for contingency funding to cover safety measures such as sidewalks, turning lanes or bike lanes but doesn’t specify further than that.
“We just made the generic request as a county government, please provide some funding if possible and we’ll leave it up to the division to determine how best to use those dollars,” said Chairman Brian McMahan.
Debnam said he’s hoping to get about $300,000 — $150,000 from the House and $150,000 from the Senate. The money would be appropriated separately from the budget process, which is now over. The Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore both have special funding they can allocate in such cases.
The DOT also has money that could go toward Ledbetter Road from its Spot Safety program, which can fund safety features such as guardrails.
Debnam said what he’d like to see happen is to get a 180-foot connector road built between Ledbetter and Monteith Gap Road. The project is estimated at $310,000, so within reach if the $300,000 from the General Assembly comes through.
“Sure, we’re going to increase traffic. Wherever you put the traffic numbers are going to pick up, but we have to do something to get them off Ledbetter Road,” Debnam said.
Now, everyone who lives in developments such as River Walk Apartments, The Maples of Cullowhee, University Suites and River Park has to use Ledbetter to access any through roads.
Getting the county commissioners to craft resolutions requesting road project funding from elected officials isn’t the typical way for road improvements to move forward. But in the case of Ledbetter Road, it’s just about the only option.
“We have basically been told by the folks at the Department of Transportation that they will never be able to assign enough points to get this road to a point where it can actually be improved,” said County Manager Chuck Wooten at a meeting shortly before his June 30 retirement.
Road projects in North Carolina are prioritized according to a formula that considers factors such as the length of the road and how many vehicles it serves. Ledbetter is a short road, and while it serves too many vehicles for its size, the raw traffic volume doesn’t hold a candle to projects seeking funding in more populous areas of the state.
“Even next year if it was to rank high enough, they said it will take seven years before any funding would be available,” McMahan said. “That was why the DOT was asking, let’s look at other opportunities.”
Nothing’s a done deal yet. It will likely take about six weeks to find out if funding will be granted, Debnam said, and then the question will be how much. It could be the full $300,000, or it could be less. However, he’s hopeful for success.
Debnam is also hoping for speed. He’s seen enough wrecks from his back porch throughout the years to know this is a problem that needs to be addressed swiftly.
“We’re all scrambling around, trying to find a solution,” he said.