By Paul T. Choate
Feb. 13, 2013. The widening of U.S. 321 in Watauga and Caldwell counties, including in the town of Blowing Rock, is currently 16 percent complete and slightly behind schedule. But as of last Friday, that is the least of the concerns regarding the project.
According to Doug Eller, North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Division 11 resident engineer, the contractor originally awarded the $66.4 million project is in the process of being replaced due to financial difficulties.
The project was awarded to Taylor & Murphy Construction Company Inc. of Asheville in December 2011. Construction began in early 2012. The bonding company associated with the project, Travelers Insurance, officially took over control of the project from Taylor & Murphy last week, Eller said.
Taylor & Murphy was hoping to restructure and retain control of the job, Eller said, but on Friday, Feb. 8, the decision was made that Travelers Insurance would take over control for now and award the project to a different contractor.
As for what caused the financial difficulties for Taylor & Murphy, Eller said he knew of a project they were working on in Tennessee that did not go as planned, but he said he didn’t think that was exclusively the problem.
“The way it was described to me, the downturn of the economy has just taken its toll on the amount of work that they had going on,” he said.
Calls to the CEO and the vice president of Taylor & Murphy were not returned as of presstime.
Eller said there were three potential new contractors being looked at, but said because the changeover was “in flux” and nothing was official yet, he did not want to discuss who those companies are.
“We’re being told that a more local contractor will take over the job,” he said. “It’s really up to the bonding company who they choose. Once the bonding company takes over they end up choosing who they want to finish the job because they are the ones that are exposed to all the costs of the job now.”
The project was already slightly behind schedule due to revisions to the plans for some of the retaining walls, but the replacement of the prime contractor is expected to cause some further delays.
“In the end, it may end up delaying the project a little bit because we’re going to have to get a new contractor to come in and step up and step in, and it’s going to take him a while to get acclimated to the job and at what point the progress is and what direction he needs to go with his work,” Eller said. “We realize there will be some delays but we hope they will not be significant.”
Eller said that hopefully a lot of the subcontractors and project personnel will be retained by the new prime contractor, which could help to lessen the delays.
“Other than a new company managing the work, we’re hoping that not a lot will change,” he said.
Despite delays, Eller said NCDOT is still looking at October 2015 as the anticipated completion date.
On the bright side, the changeover in prime contractors occurred during a time when progress is slow regardless due to the High Country’s winter weather.
“If it were going to have to happen, this is the best time for something like this to happen — during the off-season,” Eller said. “That way, hopefully, everything can be in place when the weather breaks and weather permits grading and construction activities to resume.”
Presently, although it is official that Taylor & Murphy will not be completing the project, their crews are still on the job and pursuing the work until a new prime contractor and their personnel are chosen and brought in. Eller said he anticipated Travelers Insurance will officially select the new prime contractor within the next couple of weeks.
“We’re very pleased with what [Taylor & Murphy] has done up to this point,” Eller said. “It’s unfortunate that they’ve had a little bit of bad luck; but from the department’s perspective, we’ll still move forward with the project with the new prime and hopefully everything can be finished on schedule.”
Today, Feb. 13, there were no road closures on U.S. 321 in Blowing Rock and today’s operations were initially limited and then halted altogether due to the weather, according to the NCDOT Twitter feed.
Stick with High Country Press for more on this developing story.