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North Carolina DOT Widens I-26 for a Better Route Near Asheville Passage

by: Larry Bernstein
Crews work on a section of I-26 near Asheville, North Carolina. The widening of the interstate will increase capacity for the heavily traveled roadway. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation
Crews work on a section of I-26 near Asheville, North Carolina. The widening of the interstate will increase capacity for the heavily traveled roadway. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation
The Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian Trail, extend over 600 miles. They run north to Pennsylvania and south to Georgia. Near the mountains is Asheville, North Carolina, and I-26. The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is widening the highly traveled interstate to free up congestion in the Asheville area.

The project is taking place in two counties – Buncombe and Henderson. In these counties, locals who travel between the two areas, tourists, and businesses shipping goods use I-26.

The average daily traffic count for the interstate is 85,000. This heavy usage means regular congestion for travelers. Accidents during rush hour cause backups that extend to 6 to 8 miles.

The project involves widening 17 miles of road including doubling the lanes from four to eight over 11 miles of I-26. Because the southern-most part of the project in Henderson has lesser need, it will be widened to six lanes. Two bridges – one eastbound and one westbound that span the French Broad River – will be removed and be replaced by one bridge.

Multiple Sections
To help with the phasing of this large project, NCDOT has split the project into two sections. The northern section is in Buncombe County and the southern section is in Henderson County.

In the southern section, the team spent the spring and summer of 2020 working on removing 10 bridges and overpasses that were no longer compatible with the interstate. Eight bridges are under construction.

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“The current work has involved a significant amount of structure work,” says Michael Patton, a Resident Engineer for NCDOT who is overseeing the southern section of the project. Other current work includes laying drainage pipe and utilities, such as water and sewer, as well as relocating cable and electric lines.

The southern section of the project has a vertical construction element. Two rest stop areas, which were originally built in the 1950’s, are being torn down. These rest stops are among the most heavily visited in the state, and when the new construction is completed there will be triple the amount of parking spaces for trucks.

In the northern section, the team spent the spring and summer of 2020 working on utility relocations, grading, nail walls, pipe and culvert construction, erosion control, and bridge construction. Widening the road will begin in the spring of 2021.

“On the northern section, the contractor reconsidered the traffic control phasing to make it more efficient,” says Luke Middleton, who is serving as the Resident Engineer for that part of the project. Middleton works for RK&K, a private civil engineering company that was hired by the state to represent them on the project. “The new phasing will enable the work to proceed in a more efficient manner.”

The team will start by widening the eastbound side of I-26. Once that’s complete, all four lanes of traffic will be transferred to the eastbound side, to accommodate both directions of traffic. Due to concerns about traffic flow, and common afternoon thunderstorms in the area, a considerable amount of work is taking place at night.

Schedule and Budget
The I-26 project began in October 2019 and is scheduled for completion in November 2023. Construction for both sections is expected to be complete on time. While it’s early in the process, Patton notes they are on schedule so far, and he credits this to the contractor and NCDOT.
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“The contractor has a financial incentive to complete the project on time while we see it as part of our job of meeting the taxpayer’s expectations,” says Patton. “So, each of us are working towards the same goal just from a different angle.”

“We’ve been working with the contractor to make sure that work is planned well in advance so that the project can proceed without any unnecessary delays,” says Middleton.

The amount of the contract for the entire project is $531 million. The project is so far on budget. The change in traffic phasing on the north section will save at least $8 million according to Middleton.

“We’re focused on spending the taxpayer money wisely. We look to save money every day while we build a safer road that meets the plans and specs,” says Patton. “On a large complicated project such as this one, things come up, but if we do our job it will balance itself out in the long run.”

Another way to monitor both time and money is the communication between Middleton and Patton. “We tell each other about any problems to head them off,” said Middleton, “and we touch base with the contractor on a weekly and monthly basis.”

Construction Challenges
Both the French Broad River and the Blue Ridge Parkway are environmentally sensitive. The crew needs to be stringent to maintain the scenic integrity of the parkway. One example of this is a bridge that is being replaced along the parkway that is being built in precast segments. This bridge must be approved by the National Park service, as it maintains its own design criteria and environmental objectives.
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Regarding the river, there are many environmental monitors to make sure the riverbeds are being preserved and that endangered species are not adversely affected. Crews need to be careful to not let anything get into the water. “Meeting all the environmental stipulations takes lots of effort,” said Middleton “as does coordinating between the various federal and state agencies.”

The regular summer rains have also posed a challenge. The contractor is responsible for maintaining all erosion control devices to prevent any sediment loss and works diligently to provide ground cover as soon as possible.

And the pandemic has been a challenge, but also helpful for the project. “For a month, traffic was nearly nothing, it has since returned,” says Patton. “We were able to do lane closures and got a lot done during that month.”

Because the roadway is so heavily used, the speed that work must take place can also be a challenge for the project team. One bridge over I-26 must be removed, and its wider replacement installed, in 180 days.

“When we get started on that portion of the project, we’ll be working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, depending on the weather,” says Patton.

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When the I-26 widening is complete, it will mean traffic improvements and less congestion for all commuters. It will better the economic outlook for the area, as it will be easier for goods and visitors to get to and from the area. While this project is large in and of itself, it’s only a piece of a larger puzzle as NCDOT expects to widen I-26 in other areas of the state to the north and south of this project in the coming years.

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