Ledbetter Road: fix or folly?

This story was written by Tanner Hall, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Arial view of Ledbetter Road. Photo from The Sylva Herald.

Arial view of Ledbetter Road. Photo from The Sylva Herald.

Four months after a father of four died in a hit and run in Cullowhee, there’s new action to protect other pedestrians who use overcrowded, unsafe Ledbetter Road.

Transportation officials hope to link Ledbetter and Monteith Gap roads. The connector near Western Carolina University would add about 150 feet of pavement to the end of Ledbetter, creating a loop.

About 1,000 people – residents of University Heights, as well as students at University Suites and Villas, The Maples of Cullowhee, and River Walk Apartments – would have the option to avoid the curvy, riverside portion of Ledbetter. Officials hope this will cut down on traffic, making the trip to and from campus safer.

N.C. Department of Transportation Construction Engineer Brian Burch said last week that preliminary engineering and design for the project is underway. Environmental surveys and right-of-way acquisition will come next, he said.

Efforts to improve Ledbetter followed the June 9 death of 40-year-old Daniel Brown. He was struck and killed while walking the two-lane road at 1:45 a.m. There are no sidewalks. Brown lived with his family in the nearby River Park Community.

Brown’s widow, Terry Brown, said pedestrians continue to take the risk of walking along Ledbetter. “Every time I see it, my heart breaks, because I don’t know if the next car is going to hit them,” she said Tuesday.

Terry Brown said she is glad to see progress. “Everything they’re doing is great,” she said. “I’m still raising four children. There are students and others – human beings that we need to keep safe.”

“It was a little bit too late that day – my husband is never going to walk through my door again – but it’s never too late to fix what’s wrong,” she said.

Some maintain, however, that a connector road alone won’t make Ledbetter any less dangerous.

“At this point, I’d need to see more information from the DOT before I’d be 100-percent behind it,” Jackson County Commissioners’ Chairman Brian McMahan said last week. “I haven’t seen anything to convince me that it would make a difference.”

N.C. Board of Transportation member Jack Debnam, who said he can stand on his back porch, look across the Tuckaseigee River and see what’s happening on Ledbetter, is the driving force behind the connector. The project will be worth it, even if only one person uses it, he said.

“If anybody goes that way, that’s less traffic on Ledbetter,” Debnam said. “At least they’d have the option. Doing nothing is not an option.”

County commissioners pushed for safety improvements to Ledbetter in the months following Daniel Brown’s death. They asked state legislators for relief money once it appeared unlikely that a full sidewalk and bike-lane project would be funded.

DOT received $125,000 from the N.C. House of Representatives in July. The other half – $125,000 from the N.C. Senate – came Oct. 12. Burch said he believes that will cover costs for the connector road.

“I’ve seen three people get killed and several cars go into the river,” Debnam said. “I live with that situation every day. (The connector) might save somebody’s life.”

Although the alternate route won’t address any of Ledbetter’s main safety issues, Scott Baker, chairman of the Cullowhee Planning Advisory Council, said he’s in favor of the project. Students who live closer to the current Monteith Gap/Ledbetter intersection might not take the long way around; however, residents of the 46-home University Heights, as well as students of the 108-bed Maples of Cullowhee, might welcome the connector, he said.

Baker has lived in University Heights since 2000. He used a neighborhood mailing list to ask other residents what they thought about the proposed connector. Of the 25 responses, 13 residents said they would use the new road. Seven residents said they were unsure, while five said they would not.

“Ledbetter Road is getting to be more of a hazard every day,” said Susie and Bob Ray. Cars cross the center line, and those going in and out of the apartment complexes dart out in front of traffic routinely, they said.

“We would definitely use the alternative route, not only to get to old N.C 107, but also to go to the greenway,” they said.

“The traffic is significant, and the many blind spots make the drive an unwanted adventure most days,” said Kelly Doppke, who approves of the connector.

Residents overall were split on whether the connector will be an adequate short-term solution. Many of the respondents shared Chairman McMahan’s concerns that traffic volumes on Ledbetter would remain high, with students opting to stick with their current route.

Longterm, officials, residents and Terry Brown all agree that a sidewalk and bike lane for both Ledbetter and Monteith Gap are needed. Those improvements, however, will have to wait.
After Daniel Brown’s death, local leaders declared Ledbetter their No. 1 priority. It has since disappeared from DOT’s list of potential projects.

The Ledbetter project scored too low in DOT’s ranking system to be funded, regardless of what local leaders decided to do, Rose Bauguess of the Rural Planning Organization said. Prioritizing Ledbetter would have been wasting their input points, she said.

Traffic counts, taken before River Walk Apartments added almost 500 beds to the road in 2015, might have factored into the low ranking this time around, Burch said during a June 22 RPO meeting.
The project score couldn’t be changed to reflect current traffic volumes or safety considerations – such as Brown’s death – he said.

DOT is currently developing the formula for how projects will be weighed during the next round of planning.

“Until we know the criteria, we can only speculate on the potential ranking of this project,” Burch said. “We do expect that safety and congestion will continue to be part of the criteria, and the updated information will potentially increase the score.”

At a cost estimate of $3.3 million, construction would have had to wait until at least 2020, even if funding was approved this year, Burch said.