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NCDOT Closes One Lane of I-40 Through Pigeon River Gorge for Bridge Replacements

Wed November 01, 2023 - Southeast Edition
NCDOT & Knoxville News Sentinel

A stretch of Interstate 40 in far western North Carolina is reverting to a winter season traffic pattern to accelerate construction of bridges at two locations in the rocky Pigeon River Gorge.

As a result, holiday travel crossing the Tennessee-North Carolina border via I-40 is once again going to take some patience and planning, just like last year.

Beginning Nov. 1, traffic in both directions was reduced to one lane between U.S. Highway 276 (Exit 20) and mile marker 18 as two bridges over White Oak Road in Haywood County undergo construction for replacement, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

Traffic conditions will likely mirror what travelers experienced last winter when Kiewit Construction, a North American contracting firm, started replacing the two structures, locally known as the high bridge and the low bridge. The schedule calls for traffic to remain in this pattern into next May in order for crews to finish replacing the bridges, each of which have reached the end of its service life.

Last winter, Kiewit's crews concentrated their efforts on replacing the low bridge before shifting their focus to building a new westbound bridge at the high bridge location over the summer.

Once the bridge rebuilds are wrapped up next spring, the contractor will turn its attention to replacing an I-40 bridge over Fines Creek Road (Exit 15) and another nearby bridge over the Pigeon River.

The series of construction work is part of a five-bridge plan, the first of its kind in the state to be administered in a new method that improves coordination between NCDOT, the contractor and the design team.

The construction manager/general contractor method is designed to lower costs and expedite delivery from the first step of the design phase until the final inspection, according to NCDOT. Kiewit earned the contract for $84.3 million.

With both directions of traffic now shifted into a one-lane pattern on the new structure at the site of the low bridge, work crews are starting to dismantle the old bridge before moving to other operations through the winter. That will include erecting wildlife fencing with jump-outs that create safe passage for bears, deer, elk and smaller animals to cross from one side of I-40 to the other at both bridges.

Motorists Can Choose Another Interstate Alternative

The Knoxville News Sentinel noted Oct. 31 that drivers to and from Tennessee have the option to merge into the single lane and continue along this stretch or use I-26 and I-81 as an alternate route to avoid the work zone on weekends and during periods of heavy congestion.

The optional I-26 and I-81 route travels between Dandridge, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C., as well as through Kingsport, Tenn. It adds about 45 minutes of driving time compared to a traditional trip through the gorge, NCDOT noted.

The state agency noted that motorists should plan for delays and visit its website for real-time traffic before driving through the valley, noted for its steep mountainsides along the Pigeon River.

Transportation officials in both states also are warning drivers of delays well before they reach the work zone. Digital signs are up as far east as Burke County, and as far south as Henderson County, in North Carolina, and as far west as Knox County, Tenn., to inform motorists of the lane closures and suggest I-26 West and I-81 South as alternative routes.

"On most days, safely driving through this work zone will take the least amount of time," Chad Franklin, NCDOT Regional Intelligent Traffic Systems Engineer, said in a news release. "But going through Kingsport will save drivers the most time on weekends and busy days. It is important to factor this construction into any travel plans heading through this area over the winter."

His colleague, Mitchell Bishop, an NCDOT Division 14 construction engineer, added, "The traffic management plan includes a balance of the need for infrastructure improvements with travel times and safety for workers and drivers. The contractor made great strides with their operations last winter and we look forward to substantially completing both bridges before next summer."

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