Corridor K, the 1960s-era highway proposed to connect Chattanooga and Asheville, N.C., also could bring growth to Polk County and keep its residents connected to the rest of the region, local supporters say
"We are one rock slide away from being isolated," said Keith Dilbeck, a Ducktown resident who represents U.S. Highway 64 commuters on a countywide team examining the Corridor K proposal.
A Citizens Resource Team met last week with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service, consultants and others as part of a project to work out goals and objectives for the proposed highway through or around the Ocoee River Gorge.
A map with potential routes looks like strings of spaghetti, but it's still a work in progress, TDOT officials said.
Polk County is bisected by the Cherokee National Forest, creating two distinct communities. The Copper Basin has the towns of Copperhill and Ducktown. The other community is centered around Benton. The two-lane U.S. Highway 64, with its sharp curves snaking between rock outcroppings and the Ocoee River, is the most direct link between those two population centers.
February, 2010: Corridor K workshop to finish transportation planning report
July, 2012: Draft environmental impact statement
June, 2013: Final environmental impact statement
ABOUT CORRIDOR K
* Total reach: From near Chattanooga to near Dillsboro, N.C.
* Polk study area: 23.3 miles of U.S. 64 through Ocoee River Gorge
* 80 percent of Polk study area is two lanes; 15 percent of two-lane section has truck lane
* Altitude rises from 871 feet to 1,583 feet within Polk County
Source: 2008 Economic Development Study, TDOT
Mr. Dilbeck has been driving to work in Cleveland for over eight years. He recalled a 2005 rock slide that blocked U.S. 64 for days and created a 90-minute drive out of what's usually a 45-minute commute.
It's a scary drive for Ducktown's senior citizens who must travel it to pay their taxes or go to a hospital, Mr. Dilbeck said.
Corridor K also could provide a better link for what is called "above the mountain" and "below the mountain" -- Benton and Ducktown/Coppperhill, team members said.
"We have two jails, two courthouses, basically two school systems, although it really is one," said Denny Mobbs, another resource team member and attorney.
The duplicate services must be paid for by a tax base of only 16,000 people, team members said.
Some members, though, said there will always be two Polk Counties.
"Geographically, I don't see how you can combine the two," said James Monfort.
As president of the local Trout Unlimited chapter, Mr. Monfort's role on the resource team includes Corridor K's impact on forest and wildlife resources.
He and others said that, even with a new highway, skirting the river gorge or using the existing highway with spot improvements such as wider curves still means a long commute from one side or the other.
L.W. Smith drove a school bus along the river gorge road for years. With a busload of children, he said, curves where big rigs must move into the oncoming lane just to get through are scary.
The citizens group is addressing more than safety and local unity. They also are taking into account wildlife sanctuaries, potential locations for future homes and how the highway can promote tourism and festivals.