[Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the February 1992 edition of Green Line, the monthly predecessor of Mountain Xpress.]
The story of how Tennessee waltzed North Carolina into committing a quarter of a billion dollars to upgrade U.S. Highway 23 in Western North Carolina reveals how piecemeal highway construction and special-interest politics shape transportation priorities.
Upgrade plans had languished since the ’60s; by the mid-80s, they were all but abandoned. The project was, in effect, a paper highway.
But in 1985, it returned from the dead in Johnson City, Tenn., 60 miles north of Asheville.
In August of that year, two Johnson City transportation planners hatched a plan to get their city 25 miles of interstate highway for less than $100,000. It was the first step in Tennessee’s campaign to persuade North Carolina and three other states to extend I-26 north into the Ohio Valley.
“The original idea for that project happened in 1985, when two young men walked into my office with a plan to upgrade Highway 23 [between Kingsport and Johnson City] to interstate standards,” said Eddie Williams, chief executive officer of economic development for Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County, Tenn. “And all it cost us was to change the signs [to read 'Interstate 181'].”
Because US. 23 had been built to interstate standards in the ’70s, no construction was needed to have it designated I-181.
And so what began as one community’s lobbying effort to get a few red, white and blue interstate signs, led over the course of six years to the current huge construction plans for I-26. If other states budget their share of the project, the highway may eventually be extended through five states: North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio — a 180-mile project that will cost billions of tax dollars to build and maintain. Hidden costs may prove even greater (See “Here comes 1-26: Will we be ready?” in the September 1991 Green Line).
Threatening to dump thousands of interstate travelers onto the winding, two-lane road on the North Carolina side, and promising vast economic opportunities, Williams and other Tennessee officials sold Western North Carolina boosters on the idea of building their own I-26 project — at a projected cost of $237 million.
One reason that WNC officials were so easy to convince was the widely held belief that highways bring economic growth [See "Investment or gamble?: I-26 and economic development," in the November 1991 Green Line].
Within a year of being serenaded by Tennessee, WNC boosters had launched their own state lobbying campaign and gotten the U.S. 23 upgrade project back on the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a yearly priority list for state highway projects.
“A crisis is creeping up North Carolina’s border. It will erupt at Sams Gap in 1991, when Tennessee is scheduled to cut the ribbon on a new, 15-mile section of U.S. 23″ began a 1988 brochure published by the U.S. 23/I-26 Corridor Association, a group of Western North Carolina business and civic leaders formed in 1988 to lobby for an interstate-quality road from Sams Gap south to Asheville. In 1989, the project became almost a certainty when the N.C. General Assembly passed the Highway Trust Fund to the tune of $9.3 billion.
When opponents of the highway organized that summer, they quickly abandoned hopes of stopping the project and focused on reducing the environmental damage during construction.
The paper highway
In 1965, when construction of the Interstate Highway System was at its peak, the Johnson administration funded the Appalachian Development Highway Program (ADHP) to build four-lane highways throughout Appalachia, according to Sara Stuckey, local and regional affairs coordinator for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the federal program that channels ADHP money and other development funds throughout the region.
During the ’60s and ’70s, numerous Appalachian Highways, as they were called, were built with these funds, including the section of U.S. 23 that later became I-181.
ARC funds peaked in the late ’70s, according to Stuckey. But when Republicans won the White House in 1980, ARC funding disappeared rapidly, and many planned highways were relegated to forgotten lines on DOT maps.
Project A10, the four-laning of U.S. 23 from Asheville to Johnson City, was one of the projects that died.
“We completed a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 1978,” said Whitmel Webb, the original project engineer for A10, who is now the head of feasibility studies for the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT). “We identified six routes, with the existing U.S. 23 corridor being the preferred route.” But when funding dried up, the final EIS was never completed, Webb said. A10 stayed on the TIP until 1985, when it disappeared into DOT archives, according to TIP Coordinator Al Avant.
The project had a similar history in Tennessee. Although it was listed on Appalachian Highway maps in the ’60s, A10 did not appear on a Tennessee TlP until 1986, according to 29-year veteran Bill Wallace, assistant director for planning and development for that state’s DOT.
“ARC funds paid to four-lane U.S. 23 between Kingsport and Johnson City dating the ’70s,” he said. “After ARC funds were gone, mostly state funds were used to four-lane the highway 15 miles south to Erwin during the ’80s. But it was the ARC plan all along to four-lane the road to the state line.”
In the meantime, the unfunded project languished in DOT files in two states.
The push south
In the summer of 1985, Johnson City Planners Don Kiel and Alan Bridwell realized that U.S. 23, built to interstate standards in the ’70s and connecting two cities to I-81, met all the criteria for being designated an interstate. The only thing lacking was the interstate signs, which would cost less than $100,000 for the 25 miles of highway.
Williams, a plain-spoken salesman looking for a way to boost the area’s economy, liked the idea.
On Aug. 28, 1985, he wrote a letter to TN-DOT Commissioner Farris labeled “VERY CONFIDENTIAL (“You never know who’s going to butt in and screw things up,” Williams says today.) In the letter, he requested that U.S. 23 be designated Interstate 181, a spur connecting Johnson City and Kingsport.
The Tennessee division of the Federal Highway Administration said yes. “Johnson City now has an Interstate highway,” began a Dec. 27, 1985 press release by Williams’ economic development office. More importantly, the new I-181 spur was the first section of US. 23 in either Tennessee or North Carolina to be designated an interstate, according to William.
That simple change created a north-south interstate corridor that sparked the push to upgrade more miles of highway to interstate standards — including sections in North Carolina and three other states.
In that same press release, Williams made it clear that area boosters wanted much more than just a spur off I-81. “The designation as I-181 will decrease the amount of interstate mileage needed to eventually connect Interstate 81 in Sullivan County [Tennesseel to Interstate 26 [south of Asheville].”
Today, William sees the I-181 designation as the catalyst for the five-state I-26 extension project. “[It] was nothing but talk until we got [US.] 23 upgraded between Kingsport and Johnson City,” he said.
South of Johnson City, U.S. 23 was a four-lane to nowhere in 1985, running through cow pastures for 15 miles to Erwin, Tenn. South of Erwin, it became a narrow, steep, two-lane road that passed through tiny crossroads such as Flag Pond and Ernestville for another 15 miles. The road wound over the mountains, across the state line at Sams Gap to Mars Hill, N.C., where it became four lanes again into Asheville.
Though built to interstate standards, the 10-mile stretch of highway between Johnson City and Erwin carried only 8,300 vehicles per day in 1985, compared to 16,350 vehicles per day on I-181 that year, according to TN-DOT statistics.
Nevertheless, in 1986, Tennessee included a project to four-lane U.S. 23 from Erwin to the state line in a $3.5 billion, 13-year roads program. It was the first time the road had appeared on the Tennessee TIP — and it was listed as the number one priority project, according to Wallace.
With its roads program, Tennessee got a three-year jump on North Carolina, which didn’t pass its Highway Trust Fund until 1989. Tennessee used its head start as leverage to press its neighbor to move faster on U.S. 23.
In April 1986, Commissioner Robert Farris of the Tennessee DOT traveled to Western North Carolina to make a formal request at a TIP public hearing that the U.S. 23 upgrade project be added to North Carolina’s transportation plan, according to NC-DOT records.
N.C. Gov. Jim Martin quickly jumped on the U.S. 23 bandwagon, trying to give credit to Republicans. “There was no I-26 project until 1986, when I was meeting with then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, and he confided to me his plans [to upgrade to the state line],” Martin said in a June 5, 1988 Asheville Citizen-Times story. “[The project] was not on the TIP; it was going nowhere.”
But the project still didn’t get on the 1986 TIP in North Carolina, because no funds were available, according to Whit Webb of the NC-DOT.
So Tennessee stepped up the pace.
In July 1987, Eddie Williams spoke in Asheville and told us that Tennessee had funded [the project] as its top priority,” said Bob Shepherd, executive director of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, a regional planning agency serving local governments in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison counties. “We saw we needed to deal with the consequences.”
In October, Williams spoke to Leadership Asheville, a UNCA program to develop community leaders. From that meeting, the I-26 Corridor Association was born, Shepherd said.
Today, William seems pleased that he was able to turn a narrow, two-lane road into a major interstate project.
“There’s not that much traffic on [U S. 23 between Johnson City and Asheville],” he said. “But people are afraid of that road, because it is steep and winding. And I think it will benefit the two communities to be connected.”
WNC adopts a highway
With the formation of the Corridor Association in February 1988, highway boosters in WNC swung into action, citing Tennessee’s plans as a major concern.
“An awful lot of the time-push on I-26 is fear that Tennessee will open an interstate at the border,” said Calvin Leggett, manager of the program development branch of the NC-DOT. “There is a great fear that the accident rate will skyrocket.”
The Corridor Association, made up of civic and business leaders from all 18 WNC counties, also felt the region had a lot to gain from a new interstate.
“We didn’t see Tennessee’s plans as pressure on us,” said Association Co-Chair Louis Bissette, an Asheville attorney and former mayor. “But it was clear that [Tennessee] was going ahead with its project no matter what we did. And that meant two things: economic development advantages and the safety [issue].”
On Feb. 25, 1988,the Corridor Association published a pamphlet titled “Bridging the Gap, or Onward to Ohio.” Written by economist Richard Stiles, ‘Onward” urged the NC-DOT to build a new interstate along a separate corridor from U.S. 23 between Mars Hill and Sams Gap.
“Sams Gap will become the starting point for 10 miles of traffic nightmares in 1992,” read part of the 12-page pamphlet. “This is when four lanes of interstate highway will be forced into two lanes of country roads.”
At that time, NC-DOT had recommended widening US. 23, rather than building a new corridor, for the same reason the project had been dropped from the TIP three years before: lack of funding, according to the DOTs Whit Webb.
So the Corridor Association set about making funding a priority. “We made several trips to Raleigh and met with our legislators, DOT officials and the governor,” said Bissette. “We held public meetings and wrote letters, trying to inform WNC about Tennessee’s plans.”
The Association also published a 12-page brochure titled “WNC at the Crossroads … Crisis or Opportunity?”, which warned of Tennessee’s new interstate and portrayed US. 23 as an especially dangerous US. highway.
“Danger looms if we do not meet Tennessee’s improvement standards and schedule,” read the brochure. “The 11 miles between Sams Gap and Mars Hill has been a traveler’s nightmare.”
But DOT statistics show that US. 23 from Mars Hill to Sums Gap is actually safer than the average US. highway in North Carolina. From 1984-90, that stretch averaged 90 accidents per 100 million vehicle miles, compared to the statewide average of 160 accidents per 100 million vehicle miles.
The Corridor Association’s “Crisis” brochure also cited tourism, industrial impact, commercial benefits and transportation savings as economic advantages of an interstate.
WNC trucking companies didn’t like having to go almost to Knoxville on I-40 to get to I-81 and points north. One example in the “Crisis” brochure showed that a direct interstate route could save Youngblood Transportation Company in Fletcher $85,000 annually — shortening by 39 miles the company’s tri-weekly hauls to Wytheville, Va.
Although the Corridor Association effort was bipartisan, some boosters looked to the Republican administration in Washington to complete the long-abandoned Appalachian Highways started by the Democrats.
John Youngblood, chairman of the board of Youngblood Transportation, contributed over $12,000 to Republican congressional candidates and the National Republican Senatorial PAC between 1980 and 1990, according to Federal Elections Commission records.
In March of 1988, the Corridor Association met twice with highway boosters from Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio to discuss four-laning U.S. 23 through the five states. “If one state gets going, the other states can point to that state and say Hey, we need to get going, too,'” said Shepherd of the Land-of-Sky Council in an April 14, 1988 Asheville Citizen-Times article.
In highways we trust
While WNC boosters were pointing to Tennessee and promoting the new interstate, similar campaigning for other new highways was continuing across North Carolina, with heavy lobbying from the construction and transportation industries.
The lobbying paid off richly when the 1989 General Assembly passed the $93 billion Highway Trust Fund. Most of the money was earmarked for building a 3,600-mile Intrastate System, a state-wide network of four-lane highways.
One stated goal of the Highway Trust Fund is to place a four-lane highway within 10 miles of every North Carolinian by 2000 (see map of Intrastate System).
“The passage of the Trust Fund is really what made [the U.S. 23 project] feasible as an interstate,” said Bissette.
Trust Fund money is especially important to an interstate connection project because of the way interstates are funded in the United States, according to Paul Lariviere, assistant division administrator of the eastern North Carolina branch of the Federal Highway Administration. In 1956, Congress setup a fund for 42,000 miles of the Interstate System — and federal funds paid for 90 percent of each interstate highway.
But over the years, each state received construction funds for only a certain number of interstate miles. With the completion of I-40 to Wilmington a couple of years ago, North Carolina exhausted its share of funds for new interstate construction. So if the state wants to have U.S. 23 designated as an interstate, it has to fund a greater percentage of the cost, and interstate construction. So if the state wants to have U.S. 23 designated as an interstate, it has to fund a greater percentage of the cost, and interstate highways are the most expensive to build, according to Lariviere.
That’s why the Highway Trust Fund was welcome news to I-26 boosters; otherwise, the U.S. 23 upgrade project might never have resulted in a new interstate corridor.
With the funding committed, the NC-DOT hired J.E. Greiner Co. in August 1989 to begin an Environmental Impact Statement on a 10-mile, new-corridor interstate project. Two years later, Greiner selected a preferred route for the new interstate that would cut along Sprinkle Creek through the Walnut Mountains and the Pisgah National Forest to Sams Gap.