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NCDOT's $681M Road Project to Include Land Bridge for Appalachian Trail

Tue February 07, 2023 - Southeast Edition
Asheville Citizen Times & NCDOT

Site plans showing where disruptions may take place along the Appalachian Trail due to the Corridor K Highway Improvement Project. (Public document)
Site plans showing where disruptions may take place along the Appalachian Trail due to the Corridor K Highway Improvement Project. (Public document)

Those folks hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) in western North Carolina, the 2,190-mi. footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine, will see some delays and detours near Robbinsville in Graham County this spring as major construction on N.C. Highway 143 ramps up, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The building effort is a part of the Corridor K Highway Improvement Project, administered by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), which will widen shoulders, add passing and climbing lanes, and make other improvements to various parts of a 12-mi. stretch of the trail between Robbinsville and Stecoah Gap.

The new project's length also is part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, a 3,090-mi. network of highways that links mountain communities across several states in the region.

The Asheville Citizen Times reported Feb. 2 that as part of the effort, a land bridge will be built over the highway at Stecoah Gap, and the AT will be diverted to cross it. According to the project page on NCDOT's website, the bridge will "offset any impacts associated with widening N.C. 143 and provide safe passage for wildlife and hikers using the trail."

Groundbreaking for the project took place last October, but no end date has yet been announced, according to the Asheville news source. The entire project will cost an estimated $681 million, NCDOT noted, an amount being being paid for by the federal Appalachian Regional Commission and federal grants.

In addition to the bridge, NCDOT said the 12-mi. corridor between Robbinsville and Stecoah will include the following:

  • Improvements to the road alignments of U.S. 129, N.C. 143, and N.C. 28 between U.S. 129 south of Robbinsville and the existing four-lane section of N.C. 28 in Stecoah.
  • Increased shoulder widths and added passing and climbing lanes for the length of the project. North Carolina Highway 143 and N.C. 28 will each have a pair of 12-ft. lanes installed, with 10-ft. shoulders.
  • A 10-ft. multiuse path for pedestrians and cyclists on the south side of N.C. 28 from Stecoah Road to Hyde Town Road.
  • Newly built sidewalks next to N.C. 143 from Robbinsville High School to the U.S. 129/Five Point Road intersection.

"This project is among the last of the Appalachian Development Highway System's corridors to be completed due to the challenges associated with the region's mountainous terrain and sensitive natural habitat," according to NCDOT.

NCDOT Working to Keep Trail Hikers Safe

The Citizen Times noted that during the construction, AT hikers looking to cross N.C. 143 at Stecoah Gap may be delayed in doing so because of passing cars and will likely need permission from road flaggers before crossing. State transportation officials warned that those delays are expected to last for at least two years.

According to NCDOT Communications Officer David Uchiyama, the trail also will see temporary detours, but will not close at any point during the construction. Detours will take hikers away from active construction, he said, complete with fencing, safety barriers and a crosswalk to keep people safe.

"Hikers should remain alert, follow the detour signs, and be aware of their surroundings near Stecoah Gap," he explained. "There should be very little interruption to most hikes, even during construction, and we anticipate that when the land bridge is complete, it will enhance the hiking experience."

Each year more than 3,000 hikers begin a "thru-hike" of the Appalachian Trail, most traveling northbound, and many begin the six-month journey starting in February and March at Springer Mountain, Ga., according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that maintains the trail.

Many of these hikers will hit Western North Carolina around April. The trail runs through 14 states, including nearly 96 mi. in the Tarheel State, including a section in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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