Yet another major rock slide hit Interstate 40 last night. Boulders as large as houses tumbled onto the roadway, and the road is now impassable in both directions. One woman suffered minor injuries in the slide, which occurred around 2am while traffic was light.
A slide twelve years ago closed traffic both ways for several weeks, and a more recent slide forced traffic to share one side of the divided highway for months as significant repairs were made. Fortunately there have been no fatalities from such slides, so the primary toll has been inconvenience to motorists and the expense of cleanup and repair.
Geologists predicted this exact fate when the route for the highway was chosen decades ago, and these slides occur where the road traverses a steep gorge above the Pigeon River. Political considerations overruled engineering concerns, and the compromise left a legacy of danger and expense. The rocky ridges in this stretch are called the Devil's Backbone, and they are unusually steep and unstable amid gentler mountains worn down over hundreds of millions of years.
Interstate highways represent economic opportunity for some communities and destruction of a way of life for others. Acquisition of private property adds controversy and expense, and challenging terrain means higher construction costs. Balancing all these forces is difficult, but in choosing to run Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River gorge, government leaders blundered.
Each time they happen, these rock slides should remind us how important terrain is in road-building decisions. Another interstate crossing of the Southern Appalachians has been proposed by politicians in Georgia who think a new road named Interstate 3 should connect Savannah to Knoxville. Whatever merits this road may have in the coastal lowlands, it is foolish to route it through the mountains. Some flatlander fancies US-129 as a road that can be upgraded to interstate quality, a road nicknamed "the Dragon" that attracts motorcycle riders from far and wide to try its endless turns.
It is hard to conceive of the destruction and expense needed to build an interstate across the mountains of eastern Tennessee and southwestern North Carolina, but it's easy to imagine the legacy of rock slides and road failures. We should respect our mountains, not fight them.