Feb. 17, 2012. BLOWING ROCK — As the High Country readies itself for the spring and summer tourist seasons, residents and merchants in Blowing Rock are preparing for some frustrating days, as the Highway 321 widening project gets into full swing.
The $66 million project, which kicked off earlier this month, is currently in the clearing phase, which according to NCDOT, Boone Construction Office Resident Engineer Doug Eller means that motorists will see a great many trees and homes disappearing from the sides of the highway in preparation for blasting to begin.
“We are really just in the beginning phases of the project right now with the contractor [Taylor and Murphy Construction Company, headquartered in Asheville] clearing the construction limits of trees,” Eller said. “As the project moves forward the public will begin to see some structures being relocated or demolished as well,” he added.
There is no solid deadline as to when the clearing process will be completed, but according to Eller, the NCDOT does not direct the contractors’ operations. The workflow is weather dependent and with the current mild conditions, progress has been good and so the clearing process should be completed in less than three months.
Jerry Higgins, NCDOT, Division 11 Public Information Officer said the largest concerns coming from the residents of Blowing Rock pertain to the blasting phase that is set to begin as soon as the clearing is complete.
“A lot of people are afraid it’s going to look like Caddyshack and just be blown to bits, but that’s not how this works. You will feel more when a truck goes by your house than you will with the type of blasting that will be done.”
The demolitions process basically consists of using enough explosives to crack the ground and bedrock so that it can be easily removed with heavy equipment.
Another area of concern pertains to traffic flow. During the blasting phase traffic will be rerouted at specific times on specific days which will cause some delays, something that just can’t be helped according to Higgins.
“During the blasting, it’s not like the road will be closed all the time. There are going to be times when you have to be detoured, but it will only be for about four hours at a time. Unfortunately, it’s just a situation of people getting used to the fact that this is how it’s going to be for a few years. My advice is to just plan your schedule accordingly and if there are changes along the way, we will use all possible outlets to get the information out.
According to www.blowingrock.com/construction321.php, blasting operations will close U.S. 321 from the intersection of Hwy 321 Business/Main Street to Tanger Outlets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Traffic will be detoured to U.S. 321 Business through Blowing Rock to U.S. 221. Additionally, a small section of U.S. 321 from South of Blowing Rock, between Blackberry Road and the intersection of Hwy 321 Business/Main Street may close on Monday or Wednesday nights from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Traffic will be detoured from N.C. 18 to Wilkesboro to U.S. 421 North to U.S. 321 to Blowing Rock.
Tracy Brown, Executive Director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Development said about the project’s impact on the town, “First, Blowing Rock is open for business. This project has been in the works for many years. Conversations between the Town of Blowing Rock, businesses and citizens of Blowing Rock, the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, Blowing Rock Tourism Development and NCDOT have been ongoing. Blowing Rock is a destination and as such road work getting to us should not deter a visitor. We have worked to keep visitors informed of the current and upcoming construction through our website and social media outlets. We expect our visitors to be happy when they get here. They want to be here. Our businesses will do what they’ve done for over 120 years and that is making sure that our visitors are treated well and have a good time while they’re here.”
As for the merchants in town Brown said, “There are some businesses on the by-pass that have voiced concern, especially about the median and fewer places to turn into a business. NCDOT is continuing to work hard and make as little negative-impact as possible. It’s hard to say what the overall impact will be during construction, but at the end of the project I think we’ll have a better stretch of highway that will better serve our locals and visitors.”
Currently, there are two ways to keep up traffic changes as they happen, as well as what’s happening with the project in general. The first is a special website set up by the NCDOT at www.ncdot.gov/projects/BlowingRock321/ and via Twitter @NCDOT_EastMTN.
Photos by Ron Fitzwater and Ken Ketchie.