Possible widening of Hwy. 28 has some citizens concerned

The 2021 Macon County Comprehensive Transportation plan includes a proposal to modernize and improve Highway 28, also known as Bryson City Road. While not yet a project, the idea has some citizens worried about disturbing the flora and fauna along with affecting recreational and heritage tourism.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

The proposed and not-yet 100% approved 2021 Macon County Comprehensive Transportation Plan (MCCTP) includes a need/recommendation that elicited concerns from some citizens. A few pages in the extensive every-decade-or-so report includes an “Identified Need” and “Recommendation” to modernize and improve Hwy. 28, also known as the Bryson City Road. 

Word spread of what citizens assumed would be an imminent and massive road construction project along the bucolic two-lane roadway that connects Franklin to Bryson City, and Rose Bauguess, Rural Planning Organization director for the Southwestern Commission, began fielding calls and emails. 

“NC 28 was one of many proposals recommended in the Macon County Comprehensive Transportation Plan,” said Bauguess. “The plan identifies potential transportation needs in the county through the year 2045. These plans are typically updated every 10 years or so to reflect the most recent data and changing conditions. It is important to understand that none of the proposals in the plan have been funded, so these are not imminent projects. If a proposal is prioritized and added to the State Transportation Improvement Program, it becomes a funded project with a schedule. At that time, studies would begin and public meetings on the project would be held. There really is no timeline for NC 28 because it is not a project yet, and has not been prioritized for funding.”

However, citizens began weighing in when MCCTP was published in April. Wrote one person concerned that the beauty of the route would be disturbed: “I think that the plan to widen Highway 28 would hurt more than it would help. … The recreational and heritage tourism that has been and continues to be built here is very important to the prosperity of our county. And, the wildlife and native flora and fauna must be considered. …”

Bauguess said she “understands completely” any worries over changes to the highway, and she has been spending time helping citizens understand the process. The proposed recommendation in the MCCTP states: “Construct 11-foot lanes, 5-foot paved shoulders, and add a park-and-ride lot near the intersection at Sanderstown Road (SR 1335). Improve the Y intersection at Cowee Creek Road (SR 1340).”

Before anything is even considered regarding improvements to roadways, much data must be collected. 

“We look at population projections, crash rates, etc.,” said Bauguess. “We review all the data and conduct an extensive public survey. We look at perceived needs through 2025. We make some assumptions just to plan ahead so we won’t be blindsided. And then we consider plans and proposals again in about 10 years. Because the lanes are narrow and because there is limited shoulder on which to walk or bike, this is a topic that has been brought up in the past.”

But Bauguess assuaged citizens’ concerns by pointing out: “It’s not a project coming up. It hasn’t been prioritized. It’s not a top need or on the short list for discussion. And, it’s not funded. In fact, there are a lot of other needs in the county that are considered a high priority. In the report are 19 roadway projects, three public transportation projects, and 22 pedestrian/bicycle-type projects, such as multi-use paths, greenway, etc., so NC 28 is just one of many.” 

Bauguess emphasized that there is no proposal to add lanes to NC 28 and turn it into a major high-speed highway. If and when improvements become a topic of focus, she said the process of the project getting to the point of fruition is an arduous one. Surveys are conducted, public input is encouraged, and funding must be allocated. 

Currently the MCCTP Steering Committee is made up of “a diverse cross-section of individuals with interests in the environmental, health, education, business, the economy, as well as planning,” said Bauguess. For example, Ben Laseter, of Mainspring Conservation Trust, Cory McCall of Outdoor 71, and Todd Gibbs, of Macon County Schools are a few names on the committee that are not directly involved – as a career – in infrastructure planning. “We all live here, so we want areas to stay beautiful as well, but it’s about a balance of improvements without too much impact.”

She said another reason NC 28 has been on past and present planning radars is consideration of “the overall resiliency of transportation networks. NC 28 is a connection to adjacent counties. So we have to consider alternative routes, if there is a slide or something that happens. If there was ever a catastrophic event, roads like NC 28 become important because it’s a connector.” 

Bauguess acknowledged that a main draw to Macon County is its beauty as well as its historical significance. One of her roles is to help the general public better understand documents like the MCCTP, which is available to the public. 

“We don’t want change, but if it happens, we want to be prepared for it. And we don’t want to damage the environment because that’s why people want to be here. Plans [like MCCTP] are mainly to look ahead.”