Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

One of the most common concerns posed to county leaders stem around the condition of roads that wind throughout Macon County. In terms of responsibility or even ability to maintain the roads, what county officials can do is limited. Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale advocates statewide on behalf of rural roads and works with commissioners from Macon County and across the state to advocate road improvements, but ultimately it is up to the Department of Transportation to decide what projects occur across North Carolina. At the end of August, the DOT released the approved regional impact projects, which include areas that have long since been a concern in Macon County.

“The main project in highway improvements was the US 23/441 from the red light at the intersection from Franklin Plaza to Wide Horizon Drive,” Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale informed members of the board of commissioners earlier this month. “And then again from Wide Horizon Drive down 441 to Prentiss Bridge Road.”

The Wide Horizon project is projected to cost the NCDOT $31,026,180. While the project has been approved and funding has been allocated for its completion, it is still nearly a decade out. Based on the DOT’s regional impact report, the draft right-of-way date is in 2023 with draft construction slated for 2025.

“The goal of the DOT is to implement access management on this section of highway,” said Beale. “I think we all know how dangerous it is from the red light to the fair grounds. For those who drive it every day it is very difficult to know if you are in the correct turning lane, of course this is evident by the number of wrecks that occur in this area.”

Projects are prioritized by the DOT based on a point system. Potential projects across the state are separated into divisions, Macon County sits in Division  14. From there, projects are scored out of 100 points and the top scoring projects are funded. NCDOT uses a transparent, systematic, data-driven process for prioritizing the major transportation in the state and making investment decisions. Projects are evaluated based on their merit through an analysis of the existing and future conditions, the benefits the project is expected to provide, the project’s multi-modal characteristics and how the project fits in with local priorities. Each of the department’s six modes of transportation (highway, ferry, rail, public transportation, bicycle & pedestrian, and aviation) uses a data-driven approach for ranking projects. The outcome of the Strategic Prioritization Process serves as input to the Draft State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).

Highway 441 isn’t the only significant project approved by the DOT, Macon County, along with Swain and Cherokee counties, were approved for a $19,326,000 to construct five-foot paved shoulders throughout, construct truck climbing lanes at steep grades, and construct auxiliary lanes as needed around the Cherokee/Macon County line. That project will also get under way by 2025.

Macon officials advocated for other projects in the county but the projects didn’t score high enough to be included this time.

“We also pushed for the widening of NC106, better known as the Dillard Road, from Highlands to the Georgia line, as well as the Siler Road, Buck Creek Road and others,” said Beale. “As of right now, it does not appear these projects will be funded in this cycle.”

Because the state prioritizes highway projects separate from things such as airport improvements and sidewalk additions, Macon County was approved for two non-highway related projects.

“In the no-highway section, the Macon County Airport runway extension scored very high and appears will be funded, as well as sidewalk construction along Wayah Street,” said Beale. “Of course we didn’t get all we needed in our county, but since these projects are now scored on a district level we did okay. I will assure the folks of Macon County that the other projects needed in our communities will be not be forgotten and we will continue to advocate for these improvements in the future.”