CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) After an election that removed its chief backer from the halls of Congress, the Road to Nowhere may once and for all be going nowhere.
Heath Shuler, an incoming Democratic congressman who will represent far western North Carolina, opposes spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the road through an undeveloped section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The road would be a replacement for a state highway flooded by construction of Fontana Dam in the 1940s.
And that likely means the end of a project that was backed by Rep. Charles Taylor, the powerful Republican incumbent Shuler ousted.
“We’ve said from the very beginning that we think the road has the appropriate name,” Shuler told The Associated Press. “We don’t need to build that road. The appropriation to build that road is now a dead issue.”
The issue is near to Shuler’s heart. He grew up in Bryson City, at the eastern end of the planned road, which would follow the north shore of Fontana Lake. A 1943 agreement between North Carolina and the federal government included a promise to build it, provided Congress appropriated the money.
Only 7 of 42 mi. were completed before high costs and environmental concerns halted construction in 1972. Supporters of the road have continued to lobby for its completion, saying it would give residents forced out by construction of the dam access to family cemeteries and homesteads. The National Park Service now pays to transport those people across Fontana Lake by boat for their annual cemetery decoration days.
“Heath Shuler should be ashamed of himself,” said Linda Hogue, a leader in the North Shore Road Association and an organizer of the boat trips. Hogue said she hopes a National Park Service study of whether to finish the road will continue despite Shuler’s opposition.
“I hope Mr. Shuler is not as powerful as he thinks he is,” she said. “I hope that someone in Washington can hold the line. It’s only fair to let the process play out.”
Taylor, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, revived conversation about the road in 2000, when he included $16 million to resume construction in the federal budget. That kicked off a lengthy study conducted by the National Park Service, which has included multiple public hearings and issued a draft environmental impact report early this year.
The report identified five possible alternatives for resolving the long-running debate, including doing no further work on the road and making a $52-million payment to Swain County to buy out the 1943 agreement; and extending the road to the dam — a project that comes with a projected price tag of approximately $600 million.
In a break from tradition, the park service did not identify a “preferred alternative” in its draft report; many observers have speculated that the agency was waiting to see whether Taylor would win his re-election fight with Shuler. The park service has called the settlement with Swain County the “environmentally preferred” alternative.
Bob Miller, a spokesman for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the final decision about what alternative to recommend is now in the hands of new Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and new National Park Service Director Mary A. Bomar. Both, he said, “must be brought up to speed with a lot of issues across the country. So we do not know when they’ll render a decision.”
Even if the park service came down in favor of building the road, Congress would have to appropriate money for construction. And that seems unlikely with Shuler — and not Taylor — representing the district.
Shuler said he intends to push for the settlement — an option that has been endorsed by the Swain County board of commissioners, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and the Washington-based taxpayer watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Alexander has called completion of the road — which would cross one of the largest roadless tracts of land in the eastern United States — a “terrible idea.” Easley has said almost “any construction activity on the north shore of Fontana Lake threatens the delicate balance of streams, woodlands and wetlands that we in North Carolina are working diligently to protect and preserve.”
Shuler, a former NFL quarterback who led Swain County High School to three state titles in the late 1980s, said during his campaign that he often went to a quiet spot near where the road dead-ends to mull major life decisions. It was there that he decided to attend college at the University of Tennessee and to propose to his wife Nikol.
Shuler said he would like to see money spent to improve the pontoon boat service that takes families across Fontana Lake to the hard-to-reach family cemeteries.
“I sympathize, and my heart goes out to the people that have their families out there,” he said. “We need to do a much better job of transportation into Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the people that have cemeteries to visit. We need a fund to make it more accessible.”
David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner who supports finishing the road, said Shuler’s action on the issue will determine whether he lives up to a campaign promise to bring “mountain values” back to Washington.
“We have a legal binding contract signed by the federal government to fulfill that road,” Monteith said. “Once Heath Shuler takes the oath of office, he’s got no other choice — if he’s going to have any integrity or mountain values or whatever — but to honor this contract. If he does not, his mountain values have run out the door.”