By Jesse Wood
On Tuesday, June 30, a N.C. Department of Transportation representative will meet with the Blowing Rock Civic Association (BRCA), community leaders and other concerned citizens to discuss the widening project along U.S. 321.
Former N.C. Superior Court Judge and BRCA Vice President Robert Burroughs reached out to N.C. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Tata in hopes of having the project expedited. Tata agreed to send NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder.
BRCA member George Wilcox expects a “good crowd” at the meeting, which was moved to the Blowing Rock Country Club because of the expected turnout. Wilcox added that in attendance will be former CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and a number of successful business people and professionals who own homes in Blowing Rock.
Originally, the state announced that the entire project had a completion date of October 2015, and the portion of the project through Blowing Rock had a completion date of April 2014.
These were the deadlines before Taylor & Murphy, which was initially awarded the contract in December 2011, ran into “financial difficulties” and its bonding agent assumed control over the project in February of 2013. Once Maymead Inc. was hired to take over as the general contractor, a new completion date was set for April 2015 and June of 2016.
In April, Maymead Inc. requested an extension and was granted until July 7, 2015 to complete the portion through Blowing Rock. Now, NCDOT officials are saying that another extension is expected for the project, one that will allow for the project to be completed in the summer of 2016 for the portion through Blowing Rock and the summer of 2017 for the entire project.
In light of this, concerned citizens, such as those associated with the BRCA, are asking, “When will this ever end?” and are concerned about hearing that this project could possibly rollover into 2018.
“Further delay of this project can be a financial knockout punch to a number of our fine folks who are struggling to make a living from local businesses that are hard hit by this manmade disaster,” Burroughs said in a release.
Councilman Dan Phillips, one of the more vocal opponents on the Blowing Rock Town Council regarding the project, expressed disappointment and frustration with how long this project has been going on.
On thing that particularly irked Phillips was seeing one of the workers sleeping on the construction equipment for nearly four hours before a co-worker knocked on his window. The fellow in question then hopped down and left for lunch.
Phillips noted that it’s been more than 40 months since the bid was initially awarded to Taylor & Murphy. “The general feeling by citizens is ‘I don’t care what the excuses are,’” Phillips said. “The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 42 months.”
Phillips added, “We need to remove any and all obstacles that DOT are claiming that are in their way to free them up to get the job done. If that means nights and weekends then so be it. If anyone is happy with the performance so far on this job I look forward to their explanation to the public.”
Caprice Cheek, engineering technician with the NCDOT and operator of the U.S. 321 information line, which is the first line of its kind for a NCDOT project in the state, said that she understands the concerns of the residents and officials in Blowing Rock.
But, she said, the delays that have occurred are not unusual for roadway projects.
“It’s understandable that folks are curious about the project. But there’s absolutely nothing going on out there that is unheard or unfamiliar on other roadway projects. Every roadway project has their own challenges and delays … It’s not an uncommon issue,” Cheek said.
While the change in general contractors didn’t amount to much of a delay because that transition occurred during winter, Cheek said that the past three winters have almost amounted to a loss of a year’s worth of labor time. She also said there are also limitations regarding the types of materials and weather – whether too hot or too cold – that is conducive to installation or application.
Cheek mentioned that some of the delays stem from design modifications that the town has requested, for instance, the underground utilities, and that during excavation, crews never know exactly what infrastructure problems or difficult rock will be found underground – even with information from geological studies done before construction begins.
Asked about the upcoming meeting between the Blowing Rock Civic Association and NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder regarding expediting the project, Cheek said there weren’t many options given the restrictions of the project’s contract.
“Really, other than working two 12-hour shifts and working Saturdays and Sundays, I don’t understand how folks expect to expedite the project given the restrictions of the project,” Cheek said. “I’ll be honest … I really don’t think the Town of Blowing Rock wants that. I don’t think the travelling public wants that.”
While Councilman Phillips is ready to go all in to get this project complete as soon as possible, Cheek, who noted her 26 years of experience working on projects like this, said that she didn’t believe the benefits of working 24/7 would outweigh the concerns.
Cheek noted that the residents would have to endure the loud sounds of hammering and the equipment moving all hours of the night and lane closures at all times of the day. She also noted that as it stands now, lane closures have been restricted on the weekends to give the travelling public and the local residents a “break” from construction activity.
Phillips also questioned whether or not Maymead, primarily an asphalt producer and paving company, had the requisite skills to be a general contractor. Phillips wondered if this could perhaps be why the project has been delayed and why lines were recently buried and had to be unburied and later reburied because they weren’t dug deep enough in the first place.
Cheek said that the NCDOT doesn’t believe that Maymead being the prime contractor has anything to do with any delays. She said that Maymead is acting as the administrator of the contract, and that subcontractors, in particular, Vecellio & Grogan, are performing a majority of the work.
“[Maymead] has managed the project well, and [Vecellio & Grogan] are well versed in construction operations and well known throughout the country and internationally,” Cheek said, adding that this was the same setup for Taylor & Murphy’s before it was taken off of the project.
Another question that those concerned about how long this project has taken revolves around fines, if any, the NCDOT has levied out to the contractors for the delays. Some questioned if there were any outlined in the project for not hitting the completion deadlines.
“There are always potential fines written into every contract – not just this contract,” Cheek said. “Even a very basic asphalt resurfacing project has fines written into it if they exceed work restrictions, if they exceed completion dates, then they are hefty penalties that can be levied against the contract.”
However, Cheek said that contractors can apply for extensions, like Maymead has, if they have “justifiable cause” and then those extensions can be granted.
“That is a very common thing,” Cheek said.
Kipp Turner, staff engineer with Maymead, said that the NCDOT has said that there are “much larger number of crews and people” working on the project at this time as opposed to last year and that he currently working with 10 different subcontractors.
Turner mentioned that “there has been a lot of misconception” from the public in the amount of work that goes into a project like this one and how much work is being done. He said that the general public doesn’t seem to notice a lot of the work that’s been done because much of it is underground utility work and crews are in the trenches, not easily seen by the public.
In addition to about 300,000 feet of conduit for underground utilities Turner noted that there are also 41 retaining walls and bunch of blasting of rock that had to be built before actually widening the road. He also noted that on a project like this you can’t put all of the workers in the road at once, and that all of the work has to be done in a certain sequence and phasing.
As for working day and night, Turner said that NCDOT as asked that for the most part that crews need to be off the road by 5 p.m. and can’t start roadwork until 8 a.m. In addition to the noise, Turner also said that working at night requires flagging and a lot of light that could affect residents at night.
“NCDOT had asked us if night work was a feasible option but due to the reasons I had provided to you we did not feel it would be beneficial,” Turner said. “There is also a safety factor to night work that must be considered for the type of work we are doing, especially with the trenching and underground work. That is not to say that we will not perform late work or night work when it makes sense, we have already been doing that.”
Turner also said there is a general perception that outside contractors (Maymead is based out of Mountain City, Tenn.) “don’t care about anything.” But Turner said he was born in Banner Elk, raised near Blowing Rock, currently lives in Bethel and goes to church in Boone.
“I care just as much about this as anybody,” Turner said.
Turner anticipates that in July, there will be a traffic shift and crews will start to begin all of the underground work on the other side of the road.
As for the upcoming meeting with NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder, Phillips and others in the Blowing Rock Civic Association hope that this meeting will inject a sense of urgency into speeding things up.
“As a former elected official I will tell you that citizen involvement does very significantly influence politicians and government officials,” Burroughs, vice president of BRCA, said. “If a number of Blowing Rock citizens and friends, organizations and businesses speak out forcefully on this matter this project completion will be expedited.”
Note that the meeting location has changed because of the public’s response to the announcement of this meeting. Now, the meeting takes place at the Blowing Rock Country Club, located at 200 Country Club Drive in Blowing Rock, at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 30.