Corridor K is a longstanding and complex project that has been in various forms and stages of the planning process for decades.
In 2010, the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, at the request of the Federal Highway Administration, provided an objective assessment of possible measures that could increase the likelihood of moving Corridor K forward. This assessment recommended a collaborative process take place at a regional level and include a reassessment of the purpose and the need for the road as mandated by Appalachian Development Highway System funding requirements.
The resulting year-long Opt-In: Opportunity Initiative process was conceived and managed by the Southwestern Rural Planning Organization to develop a regional vision for the seven westernmost counties of North Carolina. This process also included preparing comprehensive plans for Graham and Cherokee Counties, and a Comprehensive Transportation Plan for Graham County.
An important goal of the Opt-In process was to seek consensus at both county and regional levels on an approach for prioritizing transportation investments, including the completion of Corridor K. What emerged from conversations with the public was a clear expression of the need to complete a roadway project that would satisfy Corridor K's objective: To provide an improved and continuous east-west transportation route from Asheville to Chattanooga.
The N.C. Department of Transportation paused work on the project in 2011 to allow for the development of the Opt-In Study and Graham County Comprehensive Transportation Plan. Both plans were completed and accepted by NCDOT in 2015. The approval of these plans coincided with the completion of the 2016-2025 State Transportation Improvement Program, which identifies the construction funding and schedule for transportation projects throughout the state. Reinitiating studies for Corridor K was supported in both the Opt-In Regional Vision Study and the Graham County Comprehensive Transportation Plan and included in the STIP.
NCDOT reinitiated studies for Corridor K improvements in 2015, in recognition of the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution's 2010 recommendations, notably: "An atmosphere of exploration will need to be created in the interagency meetings so that preliminary ideas can be expressed freely..."
A project team comprising approximately 35 regulatory and resource agencies, transportation agencies and local government representatives began moving through a highly collaborative process allowing for the exploration of a wide range of options before refining the project scope to determine what scenarios can be studied further.
This process bridged the distance between the support of the project in the Cherokee County and Graham County Comprehensive Transportation Plans and what would be specifically studied under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The project team is moving forward with an understanding of the need for the project and a sense of urgency regarding the progression.
Since September 2015, the Federal Highway Administration and NCDOT have coordinated four project team meetings to develop the new approach and prepare for next steps. This "fresh look," with its early and ongoing collaboration, will help avoid schedule delays by preventing impasses as the project progresses.
Early meetings were geared toward ensuring all team members were informed of Graham County residents' needs, including improved access to employment, medical facilities, commercial centers and educational facilities.
A project team meeting held in Graham County in September 2015 provided team members with the opportunity to see how winter weather, fog, washouts/landslides, slow-moving vehicles and accidents – in combination with steep roadway grades, narrow lanes and sharp curves – affect travel time reliability.
The project team includes a representative of the Appalachian Regional Commission, who provides insight on the criteria the project must meet to be eligible for Appalachian Development Highway System funding. One outcome of these early meetings was a preliminary high-level purpose statement that would help shape how the project is developed moving forward:
"The purpose of the proposed project is to provide the transportation infrastructure necessary for the well-being of local residents and regional traffic by improving vehicular travel time reliability and safety between the existing four-lane section on N.C. 28 at Stecoah and the existing four-lane section on U.S. 74 east of Andrews; providing an average travel speed of 50 mph, consistent with the Appalachian Development Highway System criteria and in a manner that is sensitive to the natural environment."
The project team met Aug. 23-24, 2016, to conduct a design workshop. With local input, the team brainstormed potential design options to meet the transportation needs of Graham and Cherokee Counties. The group discussed options for existing roads and potential new alignments and features, such as passing/climbing lanes, while keeping in mind the needs of Graham County residents and the preliminary purpose statement for the project.
The Federal Highway Administration and NCDOT have since been coordinating with regulatory and resource agencies, local elected officials and governmental staff, and conducting public outreach. After receiving input at Public Meetings held on February 12 and 14, 2019, formal planning and design studies under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) began in summer 2019.
The results of these NEPA studies are documented in an Environmental Assessment, which describes the range of alternatives evaluated in the NEPA environmental review process and identifies the NCDOT Preferred Alternative. The EA includes links to technical studies conducted during the NEPA environmental review process and detailed information on agency and stakeholder coordination.