Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Dangerous Route in Need of An Alternative: US 129 from Ranger, NC to Maryville, TN

U.S. 129 has reached mythical status for mulleted middle-aged men in Harley's and younger guys in sports bikes shooting the 318 hairpin turns between Robbinsville, NC and Knoxville, TN, but it is a very poor location for a U.S. highway.  A quick Google search, in fact, does not even remotely recommend that U.S. 129 traffic even use that way at all to reach Maryville, TN en route to Knoxville from where it joins U.S. 64 in Ranger, NC.  Nonetheless, the highway that is popularly known as "The Tail of the Dragon" became enough of an issue that a proposal surfaced in the early 2000's to tear it all up for an interstate, I-3.  The interstate proposal was so unpopular that it basically got canceled, but that does not mean a better route is needed: just not there.

Seemingly endless hairpin curves in steep terrain greet drivers of U.S. 129 between Tapoco, NC and Chilhowee Lake in Tennessee.  While it provides unparalleled thrills for motorcycles, it is not such a thrill for through traffic.  Trucks are advised against using this route, and it is mostly useless as a through route for all but tourists and residents of Graham County, NC.  Note here in this image that the road is starting to slip toward Calderwood Lake.  The terrain here drops around 300'-400' on the right.  Photo from Google Street View.

The funny thing is, this is not truly a fixable highway.  It is located in very steep terrain with unstable and sulfuric Anakeesta rock.  It is also a dangerous passage along deceptively deep reservoirs holding back the Little Tennessee River, and it wiggles around very high mountains.  The damage building a modern four-lane road through there would cause would be incalculable.  This includes frequent landslides due to the massive cut and fill that would be required and the risk of poisoning a significant water source from the leeching of sulfuric compounds from the Anakeesta Rock.  In addition, hardly anybody wants any more interstates book-ending the Smokies: even the two-lane park road planned along Lake Fontana (Lake Shore Drive) was finally canceled a decade ago that was designed to replace a long-abandoned state highway (NC 288).  Google's simple map logarithm proves that this road should not even be U.S. 129 at all.  Politics yet again favored an unsuitable mountain crossing elevating a torturous mountain back road into a lengthy section of a major U.S. highway with a long and pointless overlap through Cherokee County, NC.  Lessons should have been learned from the costly disaster that I-40 was when it was slammed through Pigeon River Gorge, but the fix for this road is perfectly clear.

What Google thinks is that U.S. 129 is not the best way to Knoxville.  Even with the less than desirable conditions on TN 68, it is still a better and safer road than U.S. 129.  This is why perhaps U.S. 129 should be moved to the blue highlighted route shown.

Looking at this, it is obvious something needs to be done to change this: U.S. 129 needs to be moved.  For novelty purposes, keeping an alternate route of U.S. 129 along the existing road is an acceptable option.  Re-designating the entire route as U.S. 129 Alt from it current junction with U.S. 64/74 in Ranger, NC to its junction with U.S. 411 near Maryville is certainly an acceptable approach, and it keeps the U.S. 129 designation without marketing it to travelers as a major route.  Relegating it to a state highway is also an option.  While Tennessee can easily do this by revealing hidden TN 115, it is not so clear what to assign it in North Carolina since the original route number 108 as well as 115 are both accounted for elsewhere.  It is also bound to be unpopular due to the tourism that U.S. 129 on its current route attracts.  Perhaps the numbers should be switched so that NC 294 is reassigned to existing U.S. 129 north of U.S. 19/74 and Tennessee likewise renumbers TN 294 in Livingston to assign it instead to existing U.S. 129 so that it is all Highway 294 from U.S. 411 to U.S. 19/74.  I guess a public hearing should be conducted where they get to choose between NC/TN 294 and U.S. 129 Alt.

As to where the new U.S. 129 should go, the logical route is painfully obvious, and it is clearly marked in the map in light blue above.  This new route would be divided into the following segments:

  1. Overlap with U.S. 64/74 west from Ranger, NC to NC 294
  2. All of NC 294 from U.S. 64/74 to the Tennessee State Line
    • NC 294 would be decommissioned along its current route
    • The number 294 would be available to assign to swap with existing U.S. 129 north of U.S. 19/74 to the Tennessee State line
  3. Continuation of U.S. 129 onto TN 123 with 123 relegated to secret status from the state line to TN 68
    • A relocation of the junction of TN 68 and TN 123 is highly advised and is described further shortly
  4. The new route then turns onto and follows TN 68 from TN 123 to U.S. 411 (TN 33) in Madisonville
  5. U.S. 129 then overlaps U.S. 411 from TN 68 in Madisonville to the current junction of U.S. 129 (TN 115) southwest of Maryville.


TN 68 and NC 294 share a significant problem: while some spot upgrades have occurred over the years to streamline the hairpin turns caused by the ruggedness of the terrain, these are both steep and winding mountain roads through remote areas.  It won't be as simple as slapping a U.S. 129 shield on the new route: some improvements will have to be made.  One of those that is glaring is the junction of TN 68 and TN 123 with a peculiar movement favoring TN 123.  This movement requires TN 68 traffic at present to make a diagonal left turn, and if U.S. 129 was routed in from the opposite direction, it would force traffic to make a sharp right (or left southbound) to continue on what would be U.S. 129.  In fact, a closer look at Google has projected U.S. 129 traffic directed onto county-maintained Runion Road: a narrow, winding road that will need to be realigned and upgraded to highway standards to better align TN 68 to TN 123 just west of the state line.  A quick look at Runion Road reveals a paved cowpath that will have to be substantially rebuilt meaning that the reworking will take awhile.  This will drastically change the highways through the Turtletown community, if built.

The sharp switchback required to go from NC 294 to TN 68 north has resulted in Google routing through traffic onto an unsuitable county road known as Runion Road.  For U.S. 129 to go this way, Runion Road will need to be reconstructed and intersections realigned for it to work.

Here, Runion Road is straightened out with intersections realigned to make the new U.S. 129 the primary movement.  Because of this, it might make sense to also move TN 68 onto existing TN 123 to meet at the junction with current Runion Road.  While distance-wise it makes sense (and I would personally prefer it) to have TN 68 remain intact on the upper left, the reality is that the through movement is TN 123 and that it makes more sense to turn that section into a county road or short secondary route.  On the other hand, most of TN 123 would be decommissioned with exception to an unsigned portion between the relocated TN 68 and the state line.

The unfortunate thing about TN 68 is that somehow this highway has been ignored for substantial upgrades and is actually worthy of a study for a major relocation itself.  It is an incredibly scenic drive, and a side of me does not want to see it changed, but the fact is that this is the most suitable route to provide an inter-mountain connection compared to many other alternatives.  In fact, a realistic long-term prospect is to relocate I-75 onto this corridor through an interstate-grade road forking off of the current I-75 near Knoxville and following existing TN 68 south to meet the current U.S. 76/GA 515 west of Blue Ridge.  The existing GA 515 would then over a period of many years have intersections removed, interchanges constructed, and be upgraded to interstate standards including a new eastern by-pass of Ellijay and a shifting of the highway to create frontage roads so that the existing highway can become fully limited-access up until where the road is currently I-575.  I-575 would then revert into part of the new I-75.

The current route of I-75 steers traffic west/northwest.  While it has served its purpose well for many decades, it is increasingly congested and without a viable alternative.

Currently, the proposed route offers no time savings, and is only slightly shorter, but this is considering that on the Tennessee side, the road needs significant straightening and realignment.  That could cut as much as 15-20 miles off of the distance and provide a viable alternative if the Georgia side is upgraded to full freeway.  

In the short term, however, efforts should be made to straighten out the worst of the kinks.  While improvements for NC 294 are not as dire since significant investment has gone into upgrading the road, TN 68 is a different story.  Itself, TN 68 is 50 miles of hairpin turns between TN 123 (the Tennessee extension of NC 294) and the Tellico Valley (junction of TN 165 in Tellico Plains).  Large sections of road will either need to have the curves smoothed or the entire highway relocated to a better alignment.  In fact, the current condition of the road proves to be a major barrier between the Copper Basin (Copperhill) and Tennessee Valley.  On one hand, whatever improvements are made should be incorporated into a design that can be eventually upgraded to an interstate highway (super 2 or two lane on 4 lane right-of-way).  On the other hand, improvements should be minimal enough so that the existing road can remain in service as an alternate route when an interstate replacement is one day built.

Areas like the Hiwassee River crossing show that significant straightening of the road would greatly shorten the distance and increase the speed of the route.  On the right is a series of hairpin turns and switchbacks along the existing TN 68.  The proposed potential route on the left involve hill cuts and a high bridge over the Hiwassee River to straighten out this serpentine section.  Even if it not built to interstate standards or ever considered for a true APD corridor, simply relocating and straightening out the route as a two lane highway with passing lanes would greatly improve access to the area.  


In order to finance construction of a new highway along TN 68 and GA 5 from Blue Ridge, GA to Madisonville, TN it is going to need a significant federal investment.  As it presently stands, funding for this corridor has been sparse at best.  It took 35 years just to even get the Copperhill/McCaysville By-Pass funded, and the project was scaled down from a four lane to a two lane!  Obviously, moving U.S. 129 will highlight the importance of the corridor further north, but initial improvements will mainly be to improve safety and connectivity.  Nonetheless, the delays in upgrading TN 68 pale in comparison to the delays in completing Corridor K, a very emotionally charged project that will likely only be built if public input is pretty much made non-existent.  Perhaps instead, funding can be steered to a corridor less emotionally charged and less scenic.  Corridor K travels through some of the most pristine country in the east as it traverses two deep gorges: Nantahala and Ocoee.  Ocoee Gorge is a significant treasure that people fear will be destroyed by construction of a new highway, but at present there is no suitable alternative.  Since GA 2 was canceled in the 1970's, and no other east-west links exist in the area, perhaps a high speed roadway running from the Georgia State Line to I-75 near Sweetwater would help alleviate some of these issues.  Think of how I-26 took pressure off of I-40 even though it goes in a more northerly direction and further east.  It is the same case with TN 68.

While not part of the U.S. 129 change, upgrades to TN 68 would overall be a very challenging project.  The area of Harbuck in particular is a squeeze point where either extensive cut and fill and disruption will be required in the Harbuck community or two tunnels will need to be constructed under Stansbury Mountain.  This is part of why building the road initially with only one carriageway (super 2) might be beneficial.  A tunnel would be half the cost if it's three lanes wide vs. two three lane wide tunnels.  Ideally, most of current TN 68 is kept intact as an alternate route if a new highway is constructed and kept on-system as a secondary state route.

Even if nothing like an interstate grade road is ever built, it would be a good idea to at least design an improved TN 68 that has the potential to become that.  Design it with right-of-way for a six lane highway with limited access on entirely new location with land set aside for future interchanges would be a start.  Considering that a potential of as much as three tunnels are needed, and significant cut-and-grade is needed, it is not a cheap project.  A significant investment was already made to rebuild TN 68 north of Tellico Plains, and this would simply be a continuation of that project giving a faster, more direct link between Tennessee's most geographically remote cities of Ducktown and Copperhill and the rest of Tennessee while providing a broader alternative to Knoxville.


The initial steps to get the ball rolling for a small change leading to a big change is to recognize right away that U.S. 129 on its current route is not an acceptable route.  The steps of change are as follows:

  1. Reconstruct Runion Road into a new route for TN 68 that will be oriented to allow NC 294 to seamlessly transition into TN 68.
    • This will result in a relocation of TN 68 onto part of TN 123, resulting in the elimination of TN 123 except as a small hidden overlap with U.S. 129
    • Primary movement will be current TN 123 (east) to Runion Road on the south and TN 68 (north) to Runion Road on the north
  2. When this road project (approximately 1 mile long) is completed, relocate U.S. 129 onto this new route according to the previously described routing.
  3. Existing U.S. 129 will become either U.S. 129 Alt or downgraded to state routes depending on what both states decide.
  4. Curve realignment and the construction of truck/passing lanes from Turtletown to Tellico Plains should be conducted where practical to improve safety and speeds along the portion where U.S. 129 and TN 68 are co-signed.
  5. Once this project is completed, begin studies to construct an interstate-grade highway from U.S. 64/74 near Ducktown to U.S. 411 in Madisonville
    • This will be the first phase of a replacement for TN 68 
    • This does not involve U.S. 129 as much as it does TN 68 meaning that it will be a project exclusively in Tennessee
    • It may be constructed as a(n)
      • interstate-grade road (full freeway)
      • surface four lane expressway with ROW for future overpasses/interchanges and additional lanes (bridges should be constructed for six lanes)
      • super 2 (full freeway on a 2-3 lane undivided roadway)
      • surface two lane with interchanges built out for future expansion of remaining roadway
    • All designs should accommodate for an interstate-grade road containing six lanes meaning the super 2 should consist of three lanes with continuosly alternating passing lanes.
  6. When this project is completed, extend an interstate-grade road from U.S. 411 in Madisonville to I-75
    • This should be constructed to full interstate standards following TN 68 and include a high speed interchange with I-75 between Sweetwater and Farragut
    • It should be constructed with six lanes
    • It should be designed in a manner that allows large portions of Old TN 68 to remain on system as a secondary state route to serve the local communities of Coker Creek, Ironsburg, Farner, Turtletown, and Harbuck as well as the cities of Tellico Plains and Ducktown
    • It should include a realignment of Joe Brown Highway to meet the new road
  7. Georgia should begin upgrading existing GA 5/515 between Nelson and Blue Ridge to interstate standards by removing at-grade crossings and constructing interchanges
    • This will require relocation of portions of the highway to new alignment around built-up sections: especially in Ellijay and Blue Ridge
    • Existing ROW may have to be shifted to convert an existing carriageway into frontage roads and to reconnect old alignments into those frontage roads between Ellijay and Blue Ridge such as what currently exists in Cherry Log and Whitepath
    • While this is underway, a study for an interstate-grade road should commence between Blue Ridge and the Tennessee State Line following GA 5
    • The upgrades should include a widening of the existing four lane roadway to six lanes and realignment of substandard grades and curves where possible
  8. Long-term, Tennessee should complete the upgrade of the relocated TN 68 to interstate standards between the Georgia State Line and U.S. 411 in Tellico Plains to full interstate standards.
    • When completed, a six-lane interstate will connect from the end of I-575 in Nelson to I-75 west of Knoxville
    • I-75 will be relocated to this route with existing I-75 reassigned as extensions of I-24 and I-81


What will start out as a simple highway shuffle will over time turn into a long and expensive road project, but it is necessary to create a more direct route between Knoxville and Atlanta while subsequently placing U.S. 129 onto a route more suitable for through traffic.  The major disadvantage of this plan is that it will introduce traffic and development into a scenic and remote area, but this area also suffers from a high level of poverty and very poor access.  It will also cut through mountains destroying the "wild" feel of the area, but this is no different than many projects underway in parts of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.  The benefit will be is that it will take the focus off of the more pristine areas further east along the existing U.S. 129 allowing it to be conserved for tourism and natural beauty while the less beautiful TN 68 corridor will function as a better route through the mountains than the current route involving U.S. 23, 74 and I-26 from Atlanta that is not designed to handle major interstate traffic and is becoming a worsening choke point through Asheville.  It will also provide substantial economic benefits to East Tennessee that are currently not offered due to a lack of an adequate north-south link.  No other route is suitable.  Any other option is long and dangerous with sharp curves through high mountains.  It is not something that will be completed for many years.  It will likely take as much as 30 years to study and build, so for that reason it is a good idea to start small and start now.

1 comment:

  1. How about no, 68 would be a nightmare to widen in many spots, Whats wrong with using hwy 64?