Corridor K is a longstanding and controversial issue 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 that a "collaborative process" take place at a regional level and include a reassessment of the regional purpose and the need for the road as mandated by Appalachian Development Highway System funding requirements.
The resulting year-long "Opportunity Initiative" (Opt-In) Regional Vision process was conceived by the N. C. Interagency Leadership Team – a team of state and federal agencies with a shared goal to "balance successfully mobility, natural and cultural resource protection, community values, and economic vitality."
The Interagency Leadership Team decided 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 during this period 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.
In 2011, NCDOT paused work on the project to allow for the development of the Opt-In study and Comprehensive Transportation Plan. Both of these plans were completed and approved by the NCDOT in 2015. The approval of these plans also coincided with the completion of the 2016-2025 State Transportation Improvement Program – the N.C. Department of Transportation's 10-year state- and federal-mandated plan that identifies the construction funding for transportation projects throughout the state and when they are scheduled for construction. Reinitiating studies for Corridor K is due to the fact that it was supported in both the Opt-In Regional Vision study and the Graham County Comprehensive Transportation Plan and then funded as part of 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 comprised of approximately 35 regulatory and resource agencies, transportation agencies and local government representatives are currently moving through a highly collaborative process that allows for the exploration of a wide range of options before the project scope is refined to determine what options can be studied further.
This process bridges the distance between Cherokee County and Graham Counties the Comprehensive Transportation Plans' support of the project and what specifically will be studied under the National Environmental Policy Act.
It is important to note that the project team is moving forward with an understanding of the need for the project and a sense of urgency regarding the project's 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. Although specific details of the project are unclear at this time, this "fresh look," with its early and ongoing collaboration, will help avoid schedule delays by preventing impasses further along in the process.
As part of this fresh look at the project, 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.
Another project team meeting, in Graham County in September 2015, was held to provide 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 in order 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 proposed project purpose 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.
Most recently, the project team met Aug. 23-24, 2016, to conduct a "design workshop" where, with local input, the project team brainstormed potential design options to meet the transportation needs of Graham and Cherokee counties. The project team discussed options for existing roads, 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.
NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, working in coordination with the Appalachian Regional Commission, are developing conceptual designs for the potential options identified at the August 2016 design workshops.
The conceptual designs will then be evaluated to determine preliminary costs, preliminary environmental impacts and constructability issues. This process may involve multiple iterations and project team coordination to generate and discuss design concepts with the goal of determining what improvements should be studied given the physical constraints of the project study area and the funding constraints of the Appalachian Development Highway System.
This is called the project's "scope of work" and is a general description of what improvements will be studied further under National Environmental Policy Act. Once the project team makes this decision, NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration will initiate the National Environmental Policy Act planning process, which includes public meetings, natural resource surveys and other environmental studies.
The project schedule is currently under development as the timeframe for project team coordination is identified. It is anticipated that the conceptual design work should be completed in spring 2017.
Resources for Local Property Owners
Although the N.C. Department of Transportation works to minimize the number of homes and businesses displaced by a road project, it is inevitable, in many cases, that a certain amount of private property is needed. The following information explains right of way acquisition and answers questions about the process.