Work crews on U.S. 421 have battled a seemingly endless series of ice and snow storms since Christmas while trying to widen a major thoroughfare into and out of the town of Boone.
The brutal winter that has affected so many Americans along the East Coast since December also has been responsible for delaying many outdoor construction projects. Usually there are days where the conditions are mild enough to allow for work to continue.
That has not been the case, though, in mountainous Watauga County, N.C., where work crews on U.S. 421 have battled a seemingly endless series of ice and snow storms since Christmas while trying to widen a major thoroughfare into and out of the town of Boone.
Right now, the weather appears to be winning.
But with spring just a few days away, officials with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the project’s general contractor, Blythe Development Co., Charlotte, N.C., are hoping that the U.S. 421 work can quickly ramp up to full speed.
Their goal is to widen and improve a large section of U.S. 421, or King Street, as it is known to the locals, in time to handle the expected increase in traffic that will occur when construction of the county’s new high school is finished this summer.
Work initially began last August on the approximately $16 million road project. The roadway being improved, only 1.1 mi. (1.7 km) long, stretches from the intersection of U.S. 421 and N.C. 194 (Jefferson Road) west to U.S. 421’s interchange with U.S. 321 (Hardin Street).
Complicating matters is the fact that this section of U.S. 421 serves as the main entrance and exit point into Boone from the Triad and Triangle cities to the east. As home to Appalachian State University, located at the western end of the project, Boone gets a great deal of out-of-town traffic via U.S. 421.
Plans call for the current configuration of U.S. 421’s four narrow lanes to be expanded to six travel lanes with dedicated turn lanes at the route’s three main intersections. New 5 ft.-wide sidewalks and 2 ft.-wide bike lanes on the edge of the roadway, as well as a concrete median separating the north- and south-bound lanes, also are going in.
It is hoped that by installing a 4 ft.-wide median along 90 percent of that part of the road, the high number of traffic accidents seen in the past due to people turning left can be avoided. Left turns will only be allowed at the stoplights at the main intersections.
For decades, visitors and residents alike have become accustomed to battling heavy traffic along U.S. 421/King Street in downtown Boone. But only when a new high school was proposed at a site close to the road was something finally done to improve the situation.
“Well, the amount of traffic in that area is the biggest reason for doing this project, certainly” explained Frank Gioscio, NCDOT’s resident engineer on the U.S. 421 improvement, “but what really got it moving hot and heavy was the proposal to build a new Watauga High School.”
Gioscio said that the county debated for years whether to renovate the existing school or build a new one. When it was finally decided to put up a new school just off U.S. 421 and across town from the current school, Gioscio said, local leaders quickly realized that the nearby highway, with its bottleneck of four narrow lanes just east of the downtown, would be totally inadequate for handling even more traffic.
“They realized that when that school opens, traffic through there would be an absolute nightmare due to the tremendous amount of vehicles that run through this end of town,” he said. “So they went to the NCDOT and asked if there was any way that the U.S. 421 project could be sped up to have it ready when the new school opens this August. They said ’yes’ and the project was put on the fast track quicker than you have ever seen.”
Now, although the overall project is not due to be completed until the end of 2011, the section of U.S. 421 from its intersection with Jefferson Road west to the intersection of U.S. 221/N.C. 105 must be finished by Aug. 6.
If it is completed by that date, Blythe will receive a $300,000 bonus. If that target date is not met, Blythe will have to pay a substantial daily penalty, Gioscio said, as per its contract.
So now it is up to Blythe’s John Culp, the company’s project engineer, to do all he can to meet that deadline.
“According to the state, we are actually a little ahead of schedule on the work,” he said the last week in February. “In my mind, though, we are behind schedule and the weather caused that. Back in December, I figured that we might be behind a month by this point, but not the whole winter.”
The bad weather, always a given at Boone’s elevation of more than 3,300 ft. (1,005 m), has been especially rough this winter. A damaging Christmas Eve ice storm was followed by snowstorm after snowstorm so that by the beginning of March, more than 60 in. (153 cm) of snowpack had accumulated.
Culp said that the only real work that has been done during the winter has been the erection of three retaining walls where some hillsides were excavated.
“Somehow, I am going to have to make up the lost time in the spring and summer,” he said.
Other problems that Culp and his crews have encountered along the way included the moving of the various utility lines that line/cross U.S. 421, and dealing with a much harder type of rock than was expected during excavation.
A lot of work was done before Christmas, including the demolition of several buildings, Culp said. As a result, more than 1,500 ft. (457 m) of roadway is now under asphalt.
“Besides the building removal and grading, they also did a lot of contaminated soil removal from two sites,” Gioscio added. “There were two old dry cleaning firms along the road that had a lot of contaminated material that had to be excavated and removed.”
Gioscio said Blythe and its subcontractors have now focused their energy on the stretch of U.S. 421 that has to be completed by early August and will not return to the other section until later.
Culp added that although there is not a lot of earthmoving to be done on this project, there is still a substantial amount to be done this spring.
That means more of his firm’s and the various subcontractors’ collection of Caterpillar, Komatsu and John Deere equipment will be used again once the weather turns warmer.
Culp also thinks that come spring, as many as three dozen workers will again be working feverishly on the project to get it ready for its first deadline in August.
He cited the work being done by the two major subs, Summers-Taylor Inc., based in Elizabethton, Tenn.; and McKinney Drilling Company, Kernersville, N.C., as being key to finishing the project on time. Together, those two firms are building the tiered retaining walls, two of which are adjacent to a pair of hotels.