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Repairs underway on steep Macon County roadway

The hillside under the Highlands Rd fell away after heavy rain on January 9.
The hillside under the Highlands Rd fell away after heavy rain on January 9.

At the beginning of January, heavy rains hit Western North Carolina washing out roads and causing flooding throughout the region. A main artery in Macon County closed while NC Department of Transportation fixes the road which was built in the 1930s. Heavy rain caused the soil under the steep roadway to slide down into the Cullasaja Gorge making the road unstable.

The Highlands Rd along the Cullasaja Gorge has been closed since January 9.
Lilly Knoepp
The Highlands Rd along the Cullasaja Gorge has been closed since January 9.

More than 4,000 people used the road daily according to NC DOT traffic tracking.

Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor explained that this road is crucial to business in Highlands as employees come up the mountain to work and tourists travel the scenic road.

“It's always in heavy use so the good news, is if there's any good news, is that this didn't happen at the height of tourist season because it would have been a tremendous disruption,” Taylor said.

Kenny McCourt, county maintenance engineer for Macon & Clay Counties, said the DOT intends to use this time to fix the hillside and make improvements on this very old road.

Plans include cleaning out the ditches, trimming trees along the road, replacing guard rails and updating signs and reflectors.

“It's kind of going to be an open playground for the DOT for the next little bit,” McCourt said.

“It was built back in the 1930s the best we can tell and steam shovels you're talking about drilling and shooting by hand,” he said.

The DOT first surveyed the damage following the rainstorm which poured 4.5 inches of rain on the region on January 9. McCourt explained that during the storm, heavy rain washed leaves and debris into the pipes under the road which caused the rain to pool on the road.

“It weighed the shoulders down and where that field material was over top of the boulders. It just breaks away,” McCourt said.

While the road is closed, drivers must detour on Buck Creek Road, a winding channel in need of its own repairs, Taylor said, especially because of increased traffic during detours.

“One of the priorities of that committee for now, over a decade, has been to improve certain sections of Buck Creek,” Taylor, chair of the Southwestern Commission’s Transportation Advisory Committee,said.

There has been at least one accident on Buck Creek since the detour started.

McCourt said the road has been important during the repairs.

“We were going to try to update everything we can in this little section of road and honestly, we're going to start taking a look at more things we can do to Buck Creek in case of failure in the future,” McCourt said.

McCourt said Buck Creek was recently resurfaced but there aren’t any plans to straighten out the road.

“I mean that's a lengthy process as far as straightening out curves because the DOT doesn't own all the property up along that roadway,” he said.

Construction on the road is ongoing. All temporary shoring has been installed and all shotcrete operations have been completed setting up two days of micro-pile installation followed by two days of wall construction and two days to tie in the ends, a DOT spokesperson explained.

The project is expected to be completed by early next week.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.