CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) In a long-awaited statement on the so-called “Road to Nowhere” through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the National Park Service Jan. 4 gave no preferred answer to the question of whether to finish a road promised more than 60 years ago.
The draft environmental impact statement, whose publication was announced in the Federal Register, identifies five possible alternatives. They range from doing no additional work on the dead-end road, which leads west from Bryson City into the park, to extending the road approximately 35 mi. to Fontana Dam.
While the park service failed to name a preferred alternative, said it wanted more public comment, the plan did say that the “environmentally preferred” and cheapest option is not building the road. The most expensive option is approximately $590 million for paving an asphalt road that would run all the way to the dam, plus millions more in annual maintenance.
The idea to complete the road was seen by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander as “terrible.”
“I have hiked the path [where] that proposed road would go,” he said after an appearance in Oak Ridge, TN. “It would tear up the Great Smoky Mountains.”
In 1943, when Fontana Dam was being built, federal officials promised residents who had to leave the area that it would build a new road along the north shore of the lake created by the dam.
But only 7 mi. were built before construction was halted in 1972 due to high costs and environmental concerns. The road now dead-ends west of Bryson City, just inside the country’s most visited national park. Environmentalists oppose completion of the road, which would run through one of the largest unpaved tracts of land remaining in the eastern United States.
Debate over the road was re-opened in 2000, when Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, a supporter of completing all 35 mi. of the road, got $16 million in funding for the resumption of construction included in the federal budget.
Alexander, who maintains a home on the other side of the Smokies near Townsend, said he continues to support a $52-million cash settlement to Swain County, NC, in lieu of completing the 38-mi. North Shore Road from Fontana Dam to Bryson City, NC.
He accepted that the government “has a commitment to the people of Swain County” stemming from a 1943 agreement to replace a county road flooded by the construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority Dam more than six decades ago.
But Alexander said the best way to fulfill that commitment is the cash settlement endorsed by Swain County commissioners, the Board of Aldermen in Bryson City and North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.
“I think the governor and the elected officials of Swain County have come up with the most sensible idea, and I fully support a settlement. But I am completely against the road,” Alexander said.
The National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a statement calling the road project a boondoggle and an environmental disaster.