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N.C. 288 will remain dead and buried

Swain County's Road to Nowhere will, indeed, continue to go nowhere.

Last Saturday, Swain County officials signed an agreement with the Department of the Interior to officially cancel the North Shore Road, proposed for nearly 70 years to replace a section of N.C. 288 that was submerged by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the construction of Fontana Lake in the early 1940s. The status of the road has been a hot topic in Swain County for decades, with proponents arguing that the federal government should keep its promise, allowing road access to old cemeteries on the north shore of Fontana Lake and giving the county a scenic route to rival the Blue Ridge Parkway and Cherohala Skyway, potentially benefitting tourism. Opponents felt that the road would ruin the rustic character of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which extends as far south as the lake, and that Swain County, one of North Carolina's poorest, would benefit from a significant cash settlement that could provide the county with a windfall on the order of several times its annual budget.

The agreement states that the county will receive $52 million over the next ten years, contingent on approval by Congress. Nearly a quarter of that money, $12.8 million, will be appropriated to the county this year, and the rest will be included in federal budgets for the next ten years. President Obama's 2011 budget includes a $4 million payment to the county.

As part of the settlement, Swain County commissioners will only have full control over the interest generated by the settlement. The principal will be unavailable for spending unless its use is approved by a 2/3 majority of Swain County voters.

Commentary: For one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, this settlement is manna from heaven. Swain County is hamstrung by its location, since over half of the county is part of GSMNP, the Nantahala National Forest or the Cherokee Indian Reservation, all of which are federal lands that do not pay property taxes to the county. As a result, the county has suffered for decades with service cuts, undercompensated employees and some of the worst-performing schools in North Carolina.

Estimates were that finishing the North Shore Road would cost upwards of $600 million, clearly a significant sum given the current haggling over the deficit. By settling with the county, the government saves millions of dollars.

However, it's a shame for the families, some of whom have lived in western North Carolina for generations, who are still beholden to the National Park Service ferries to visit the gravesites of their ancestors. Perhaps, as an olive branch to these families, the NPS should consider increasing the frequency of ferry service, maybe to an on-demand system, to allow the families access to the cemeteries more frequently.

From a road-access perspective, N.C. 288's potential usefulness certainly isn't to the level that would justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars for its construction. In recent years, parts of N.C. 28 on the other side of Fontana Lake has been widened to accommodate the eventual U.S. 19/74 bypass of the Nantahala Gorge, and as a result all but 13 miles of the Bryson City-to-Fontana Dam route is now a divided four-lane highway. The N.C. 28 route adds about four miles to the trip as compared to a potential N.C. 288 route, but it is much safer and has the advantage of being fully built.

If nothing else, it at least gives folks a reason to go to Bryson City, to see the completed portion of the North Shore Road and wonder what might have been.

Links:
Swain gets $52 million in North Shore Road deal: http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2010302030031
70 years later, North Shore Road dispute ends in Swain County: http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2010302070047
Restrictions placed on Swain North Shore Road settlement money: http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2010302050035
Swain board OKs historic North Shore Road deal for cash: http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2010302060037
Long dispute over road ends: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local_state/story/337999.html

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