A Democratic Governor’s Rural Strategy: Highways for Trump Counties

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper will spend millions on road improvements in four rural mountain counties that went Republican in 2016.

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Murphy, North Carolina – Roy Cooper is the arrow-straight, paunch-free current first term Democratic governor of North Carolina.

His model appearance and demeanor at 62 are likely to make Republicans a bit uncomfortable as he welcomes them to their party convention next August in Charlotte.

Yet that runs counter to the governing style of the onetime farm-boy from the little town of Nashville near Raleigh with a population of 4,327.  Cooper seems to naturally seek consensus.

Few leaders of the Tar Heel state are as experienced.  The University of North Carolina law school grad is a former state House member, former state Senate member and majority leader, and four-term state attorney general who gained a reputation as a tough prosecutor.  He’s also a former Sunday school teacher, deacon and elder in his church.  He’s married and the father of three daughters.  And according to his staff, Cooper “champions rural North Carolina.”

In his first State of the State address in 2017, Cooper, “reached out to Republican legislators, emphasizing their interests,” according to the News and Observer of Raleigh.

During the next year, Cooper’s big highway spending plan called the “Build N.C.” Bond Act enjoyed deep bipartisan support on the way to becoming State Law 2018-16.  It provides for “strong delivery of critical road projects” with the issuance of up to $300 million annually through 2028.

Happy Surprise

Then came what can be termed the happy October surprise for four of the counties here in the far western tip of the state – Cherokee, Henderson, Jackson and Transylvania. It was the welcome news that they had been placed on the bond issuance act.   Now amid bright fall turning leaves, the state’s preliminary engineering and right-of-way purchases are underway.

And all four counties sharing in these initial millions of dollars bringing greater road safety are themselves crimson red — politically at least — having avidly supported President Donald Trump’s election in November 2016.

In 2016, Cherokee County voted 76.5 percent for Trump. Henderson County voted 61.6 percent for Trump; Jackson, 52.7 percent; and Transylvania, 58.9 percent.

Here in Cherokee, the $22.7 million in grading, paving, drainage and signaling for what’s really an impressive highway erosion control plan along a small stretch of the four-lane U.S. 19-64-74-129 (the 1970s ARC Corridor K) is moving forward.

That’s so despite the location’s nagging, longstanding need having received only a “statewide mobility quantitative score” of 18.39 out of 100 in 2014 under a previous governor of the other party, Pat McCrory, whom Cooper relegated to one term.

Mayor: ‘I’m Passionate’

Murphy (population 1,638) Mayor Rick Ramsey told me this week: “I’m passionate about the road widening project because there have been too many accidents out there.”

Is he joined in support by the Town Council?  “Yes, we’re for it,” Ramsey said.  “It’s going to be a tough couple of years (as traffic slows through town including to the new Harrah’s casino), but we’ll make it through.”

A Sharp Turn

Governor Cooper and the General Assembly remain apart on other matters, for certain on expansion of Medicaid.  However, it’s fair to say that in this important swing state being watched as Trump’s re-election bid approaches, there’s been a sharp turn toward cooperation and bipartisanship — at least on getting something done about needful infrastructure.

What a Democratic governor is launching here in the selected county of four that are quite supportive of the Republican president is well summed up in Penny Ray’s article last month in the Cherokee Scout weekly of Murphy .

That article identifies project R-5735’s winning bidder (Wright Brothers Contracting of Tennessee), cost, extent, possible duration of up to two years, and this:

“When completed, the stretch of road will remain a five-lane highway, but the outer lanes will be widened from 10 feet to 14 feet.  The inner lanes and center turn lane will be widened to 12 feet.”

U.S. Environmental History

The 278-page “Contract and Contract Bonds for R-5735 Cherokee County State-Funded July 21, 2019” and the “Plan for Highway Erosion Control” by Karen Hefner of Raleigh’s MI Engineering are open under North Carolina’s public records law (N.C. § 132-1). These documents encompass U.S. environmental history and expansion since the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Contractor Wright Brothers Construction is to “minimize soil erosion activities in compliance with the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” that’s in that historic act.

The most prominently displayed erosion-control measures planned here – and that soon the delayed drivers flagged to one lane can at least watch for in the ditches — are called the 1633.01 Temporary rock silt check type A with excelsior matting and the 1633.02 Temporary coir fiber wattles.  There also are references to earth berms, infiltration basins, rock inlet sediment traps, rock settlement dams, silt ditches, skimmer basins, slope drains, special sediment control fences and a concrete washout structure.

State Funded

Being state funded, this Southern state’s contract and plan haven’t a word to be found anywhere in them about what Politico reported September 12 that the “Trump administration rolls back landmark water protections.”

One American in a thousand may know/realize that that particular Trump executive order with purportedly conclusive statements in it by current EPA Secretary Andrew Wheeler applies to federal funding.

That is, the executive order would have a chance of affecting funding once any movement occurs on federal infrastructure projects. It is just as likely to lead to attorneys lining up in courts from Honolulu to Maine to challenge Trump and Wheeler’s alleged “rollback.”

Tom Bennett of rural Cherokee County, North Carolina, is a retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer and editor, 1983 to 2006.

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