Troubled waters surround Old Cullowhee bridge construction

NCDOT plans to reconstruct the bridge on Old Cullowhee Road near Wayehutta and Cullowhee Auto Service.

At a public meeting on Tuesday, June 12, community members gathered in the Ramsey Center Hospitality Room to preview two alternative plans and give comments to NCDOT staff members about two construction plans. Both alternates include extensive reconstruction of roadways surrounding the bridge, including a realignment of Wayehutta Road, and new bicycle lanes. Also, both alternatives will require removal of buildings, known as “takes,” for future roadways and guardrails that will need to be placed near the bridge.

Alternate 1 will take 18 months to complete and will allow vehicles to travel across the original bridge one lane at a time, said John Williams, NCDOT project development engineer from Raleigh.

While one side of the bridge is removed and rebuilt, 23.5 feet of roadway on the other side will be left open for traffic to continue as usual. Then, the closed and open lanes will switch for continued construction on the opposite side of the bridge. During the heaviest traffic time of the day, travelers can expect a five to seven minute delay waiting for their turn to cross the bridge, said Williams. At any other time, the delay will be one or two minutes.

The total cost for Alternate 1, which includes utility estimates, right of way estimates and construction, equals to approximately $6,766,000. Alternate 1 also includes more time working in the water of the river, which is a threat to an endangered species of mussel, known as the Appalachian elktoe. Williams believed that while environmental impact is a concern, it will not weigh much on the final decision for which alternate is chosen.

Alternative 2 causes less traffic congestion and is more convenient but poses a threat to the livelihood of more buildings in the area. While the original bridge will be left open for traffic to continue as normal, NCDOT will construct a second bridge then switch traffic to the new bridge upon completion, abandoning the old roadway to whoever previously owned the property. The old bridge will then be demolished. The total cost of construction for Alternate 2 is $7,443,00 and construction will last for 12 months.

Four buildings, including Cullowhee Auto Service and an abandoned gas station, will have to be torn down and the businesses themselves relocated in order for Alternate 2 to be constructed. Two other buildings are listed as possible relocations.

Chris Pressley, owner of Cullowhee Auto Service, said that he and his family have been serving community members at his current location near the bridge for 65 years, starting with his grandfather.

Alternate 1 may still threaten his family’s ability to keep the building, but with Alternate 2, Cullowhee Auto Service will be forced to relocate. In compensation, Pressley and his family, which includes a wife and two daughters along with extended family members, will be paid the market value for the building and the property as well as moving and relocation expenses. However, according to a member of the NCDOT, by law, loss of business is not compensated.

Many people that attended the meeting came in support of Cullowhee Auto Service and the Pressley family to persuade other community members of the importance of saving the Pressley livelihood from the plans of Alternate 2.

Pressley said that he knew over half of the people at the meeting and that they wanted to help keep Cullowhee Auto Service.

“I would like to thank everyone that came out in support of my family, my business,” Pressley said.

Brian Burch, division construction engineer, said that the bridge qualifies for reconstruction due to its recent rating by the department.

Biannually, NCDOT inspects bridges for width, age, amount of traffic and other information then gives the bridge a rating between zero and 100. If a bridge falls under a rating of 50, it qualifies for improvement and reconstruction funding.

Burch recalled that the Old Cullowhee Road bridge, or bridge number 108, has qualified for improvement since 2004. However, he wanted to stress that the bridge is in no way unsafe and that there is no concern in currently using the bridge..

Burch continued that the project start date is set for January 2015, and the road construction will most likely begin first.

NCDOT is asking for all comments, questions, concerns and input from all of Cullowhee and Western Carolina University community members. Citizens may contact Williams at 919-707-6178 or As discussed in the meeting, there will soon be an online form that community members can download and mail to the following address:

John L. Williams

NCDOT – Project Development and Environmental Analysis, Bridge Section

1548 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, N.C.


NCDOT encourages those who wish to comment to please do so by July 13. Everyone’s input will be strongly considered and taken into account before a decision is made.