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Major I-40 Bridge Project Starts Near Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina

Tue November 01, 2022 - Southeast Edition #23
Smoky Mountain News & NCDOT

A contractor working for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) launched a two-year project to completely replace two bridges on Interstate 40 in the rugged mountains of Haywood County on Oct. 31. The site is just east of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The state agency has designed a traffic management plan to keep one lane of travel open in each direction between U.S. 276 (Exit 20) and mile marker 18. By maintaining this pattern for six months, the contractor, Kiewit Construction, can reduce the overall time needed to replace the two bridges over White Oak Road, according to the Smoky Mountain News in Waynesville, N.C.

Depending on the number of vehicles on the interstate at one time, traffic conditions will likely mirror those that travelers experienced last winter when a contractor replaced the I-40 bridge over Harmon Den Road and Cold Springs Creek 11 mi. closer to the Tennessee state line.

The White Oak Road bridges contract calls for traffic to remain in this pattern until May 20, 2023, so that crews can replace the bridges, which have reached the end of their service life.

Traffic will return to two lanes in each direction next summer and through October 2023, when lane reductions return so crews can complete the future phases.

Drivers to and from Tennessee may choose to merge into one lane or use I-26 and I-81 to avoid the work zone on weekends and during periods of heavy congestion. The route between Asheville, N.C., and Dandridge, Tenn., via Kingsport, Tenn., adds about 45 minutes driving time compared to a traditional trip through the Pigeon River Gorge between the two states.

"A wide variety of factors — the dire need to replace the decks, topography of the area, the proximity of the two bridges and traffic data from last winter — were considered before choosing this traffic management plan," said NCDOT Division 14 Construction Engineer Mitchell Bishop. "We hope drivers understand the need to balance infrastructure improvement with travel time and safety for drivers and workers."

Project to Improve Road for People, Wildlife

Kiewit's building crews will work at both bridge locations simultaneously, the state agency said, removing each structure before installing their replacements. The new westernmost bridge will include two 12-ft.-wide travel lanes for both directions. The other existing span over White Oak Road and Jonathan Creek also will be demolished and replaced with one eastbound bridge and one westbound bridge. Both of those structures, too, will feature a pair of 12-ft.-wide travel lanes.

Their locations will feature wildlife fencing, with jump-outs which create safe passage for the region's abundant bears, deer, elk and smaller animals to get from one side of I-40 to the other.

NCDOT told the News that the necessary structural replacements are part of a five-bridge project, the first of its kind to be administered by the state as part of a partnership between NCDOT, the contractor and the design team. The Construction Manager/General Contractor method was formed to lower costs and hasten delivery from the first step in the design phase to the last inspection.

Kiewit Construction's contract to replace the I-40 bridges is worth $84.3 million.

NCDOT officials have begun alerting drivers of delays well before they reach the work zone. Digital signs as far east as Burke County, as far south as Henderson County and as far west as Knox County, Tenn., are announcing lane closures and suggesting the roadway's alternative routes.

"Driving through the work zone will take the least amount of time on most days," said Chad Franklin, NCDOT Regional Intelligent Traffic Systems Engineer. "But [on] weekends and busy days, going through Kingsport will save drivers the most time. Planning ahead, and anticipating delays, is a very important part of trip planning this winter."

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