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NCDOT Meets With Concerned Blowing Rock Citizens To Discuss U.S. 321 Widening Project

More than a 150 attended the meeting about the U.S. 321 widening project with the NCDOT on Tuesday. Photos by Jesse Wood

By Jesse Wood

Officials with the N.C. Department of Transportation heard concerns of citizens regarding the U.S. 321 widening project at the Blowing Rock Country Club in a Tuesday meeting spawned by the Blowing Rock Civic Association (BRCA).

The point of the meeting was to urge the NCDOT to fast track this project.

BRCA member George Wilcox (center) presents the speakers on Tuesday. NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder (from left) NCDOT Division Engineer Mike Pettyjohn, BRCA VP Judge Burroughs and NCDOT Board Member Jim Palermo.
BRCA member George Wilcox (center) presents the speakers on Tuesday. NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder (from left) NCDOT Division Engineer Mike Pettyjohn, BRCA VP Judge Burroughs and NCDOT Board Member Jim Palermo.

BRCA Vice President Judge Bob Burroughs moderated the meeting that was attended by more than 150 people. Burroughs told NCDOT officials present that he didn’t want to hear excuses and didn’t care to look in the rearview.

“One thing I don’t want to do today is get bogged down in minutia,” Burroughs said. “We don’t really care how they had to move a box two months ago. We want to know when the highway is going to be finished from the [Green Park] Hotel to Tanger [Outlets]. That is the big focus today.”

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.

Originally, the state announced that the entire project, which crosses into Caldwell County, had a completion date of October 2015, and the portion of the project through Blowing Rock had a completion date of April 2014.

Because of the numerous extensions, the BRCA expressed concern that this project could roll over into 2018.

But on Tuesday, NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder eased those concerns by saying that the project wouldn’t take that long.

“There have been rumors and other things about 2018, but I can assure you folks that 2018 is not part of the conversation,” Holder said.

One citizen pressed the NCDOT to commit to finishing the project through Blowing Rock by the Fourth of July holiday in 2016.

Citizen Leigh Dunston challenges NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder to make an informal commitment to finish the project by July 4, 2016.
Citizen Leigh Dunston challenges NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder to make an informal commitment to finish the project by July 4, 2016.

“Can you make it 12 or 13 months? You can celebrate the Fourth of July as a hero,” Leigh Dunston said to loud laughter.

Holder had previously mentioned that in “15 to 16 months that portion of the road will be gorgeous” as far as the retaining walls and the gradeline are concerned. He added that some minor work might run into the spring of 2017 as far as the “final lift of asphalt stripping or such” goes – but nothing that will resemble the inconveniences and eyesores of the past few years.

“I am very empathetic about the concerns and concerned about the impacts it has had on your community … We want nothing more to get out of y’all’s hair and not be a hindrance to the community,” Holder said.

After the citizen’s comment, Holder said that completing 95 percent of the project by the Fourth of July could be “very, very close” to being possible.

As far as what’s taken so long, NCDOT officials cited the weather, the stubborn granite where underground utilities are being placed and restrictions put into place by a prior council as far as when construction is allowed to take place.

“We can’t control the weather,” NCDOT Board Member Jim Palermo said.

One woman from Caldwell, who attended to voice concerns of runoff into her neck of the woods, where lawsuits are being raised with the NCDOT for damages to property, responded during a Q&A session, “When you hit rock in Blowing Rock, how is that beyond your control?”

Palermo said that although the times are very much different when the Blowing Rock Town Council signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” for the project in 2004, the circumstances are very much the same. Palermo cited the tourism-based economy and noted that the council recognized ASU football games and leaf season, for two examples, as “sacred cows,” where visitors attending shouldn’t be inconvenienced with round-the-clock road construction.

“How can you fast track this project?” Palermo asked. “I had this conversation … yesterday. It isn’t up to you or us. It’s up to the elected body who originally said do this within provisions of when you can and can’t work.”

NCDOT Division 11 Engineer Mike Pettyjohn said that restrictions occur during all of the holidays, special events and everyday during morning and evening work commutes. (See end of article for complete list.)

Another person asked about incentives, which aren’t written into the contract with Maymead, to finish the project early. Palermo noted that he asked such a question to construction officials and was told, “[The case of having incentives or not to finish early] is not the issue.”

The NCDOT officials present said that the nature of the project is sequential – one thing has to be finished before another portion of the project continues. He also noted that it’s not as simple as throwing more money or bodies onto the project because then workers would be “tripping” over themselves, raising safety concerns, and would be an “ineffective way of getting it done.”

The contract is written as such that if the contractor exceeds the complete date, which was originally Oct. 1, 2015 for the entire project, then daily fines of $4,000 start to accumulate. However, these fines haven’t been levied because the NCDOT has granted extensions and deems that Maymead has run into problems beyond its control.

Other folks in attendance stressed for the contractor to work more hours in the day, but representatives with two hotels in the area expressed concern about working 24/7 or working too late into the night.

A representative of Green Park Inn said that she’s up for entertaining more working hours, however she requested that hotels be given “certain consideration” as far as not alienating transient guests that come up here for a couple nights and don’t want to be disturbed by all-night construction during their vacation.

The Blowing Rock attraction owner Charlie Sellers encouraged the Blowing Rock Town Council to work with the N.C. Department of Transportation and local citizens and businesses to figure out “what hours work and what hours don’t work.”

While many of those in attendance were criticizing the state, contractor and town, a couple people spoke up and noted that this meeting didn’t necessarily need to take place and that citizens could have found the answer to most of these questions by attending the monthly council meetings where a Maymead rep gives an update or by perusing public documents, such as the “Memorandum of Understanding” and the “Project Special Provisions,” which most in attendance didn’t seem to know existed.

“Why are we here today? I think this is ridiculous,” said David Harwood, a member of the Blowing Rock Planning Board.

Shortly after this statement, Mayor J.B. Lawrence said that he would have documents posted to the Town of Blowing Rock’s website for citizens to learn more about this project.

If anything, this meeting by Blowing Rock Civic Association – and its pot stirring over the last few weeks – definitely put the project on the state’s radar and sped things up a little bit.

“I’ve seen more work in the last week, then I saw in the previous two weeks,” Councilman Dan Phillips said.

Phillips noted that their has been an inconsistency with the number of construction workers out on the job – “you may see 50 people or you may see 5” on any given day. He also said that he doesn’t see as much equipment along U.S. 321 with Maymead running the show as general contractor as compared to what he saw when when Taylor & Murphy was the lead contractor.

Phillips also suggested that the workers start earlier in the morning and work later in the day.

“We need to revisit this memorandum,” Phillips said, adding that he would be “very open” to changing the memorandum, so that crews can work more hours.

See Project Special Provisions (PSP) here: PSP

See Memorandum of Understanding here:

See meeting preview story of the NCDOT addressing concerns of the public here.

See time restrictions, listed in PSP, below: