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Finally! I-40 set to reopen Tuesday

Here is some GREAT News for our area! No, you really have no idea how GREAT!

Written by From staff reports Tuesday, 20 April 2010 19:36

As work wraps up, opening depends on weekend weather

After six months of agonizing detours and lost business for Haywood County merchants, Interstate 40 between the county line and Newport, Tennessee, will open April 27.

The roadway has been closed since a rockslide on Oct. 25 blocked both lanes of traffic in the westbound lane about three miles inside the Haywood County line. Unstable conditions prompted closure of the entire roadway.

Haywood County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he learned of plans to reopen the highway on April 27 Tuesday afternoon. There will be a brief ceremony marking the event at the rest area.

"The county and its citizens are ecstatic that the Department of Transportation could open I-40 this soon," Kirkpatrick said. "I-40 is more than just a road. It is a lifeline for the county."

N.C. Department of Transportation spokesman Peder Zane said in a Tuesday afternoon interview that while on-site crews are confident the road can be re-opened Tuesday, the remaining work at the site could be hampered by bad weather forecasted for the weekend.

"The variable is that there's still work to be done," Zane said. "We have to safeguard against weather events."

As crews will be installing the last of metal rock bolts, metal plates and fencing around the site of the slide, thunderstorms that are forecast for Saturday and Sunday would make that work especially dangerous.

"If there's lightning, you obviously don't want to be carrying a big piece of metal," Zane said.

A helicopter is expected to help install the last of the rock bolts starting Thursday, Zane said, adding that the date for the reopening would be finalized Sunday.

In addition to stabilizing the rock face at the site of the slide, work crews have also repaved and restriped the highway, cleaned up debris from around the slide and cleared trees that were broken across the roadway during heavy snowstorms.

Alice Aumen, owner of Cataloochee Ranch and chairman of the Tourism Development Authority board, was thrilled when she received word about the re-opening of Interstate 40.

"I can't think of any better news in months," Aumen said. "I think it's been a very costly time, not only to the people of Haywood County, but also the people in the western part of the state. There will be some very happy people in a week."

The re-opening of the interstate could not come at a better time, Aumen added. Cataloochee Ranch opens for the season April 29.

"This is very timely," she said. "The spring season is gearing up in May. It is a very, very important time for this to happen."

Aumen said her ranch receives visitors from all over, especially Tennessee and Kentucky, and I-40 provides the most direct route to Haywood County.

"This will just open up this whole part of Western North Carolina since (the interstate) was built," she said. "This will make a huge difference. I'm happy for everybody."

Michael Sorrells, owner of Sorrells' Citgo, along with the adjoining café and Sorrells' Hardware & Farm Supplies, said he is "absolutely ecstatic" about the news of the interstate re-opening. His Jonathan Creek businesses have been negatively impacted with the closure of the road.

"You absolutely do not know what that road means to the area until it is inoperable," Sorrells said. "Business-wise, it's been horrendous, coupled with winter and the recession. It is a welcome, welcome relief that the road is going to open. I've been cautiously optimistic and I'm tickled to death."

Sorrells said he has definitely seen a downturn in business, especially on the weekends. While it is uncertain how soon "” and how much "” business will return once I-40 is open, but Sorrells is hopeful business will return sooner rather than later.

"I suspect, in my instance, I think we'll see a bump in business," he said. "How much remains to be seen. I've seen a drop-off in weekend traffic and I expect to see it pick up almost immediately. We're really glad it's opening and I hope we don't see anything happen (to I-40) for a very, very long time."

Since the Oct 25 closure, there have been several other smaller rockslides along the interstate which had to be cleared as well. While the roadway was closed, the highway department replaced bridges and resurfaced areas of the roadway as well.

The work of drilling 590 holes into the face of a mountain and inserting bolts to keep the rock in place was daunting at best, but given the unusually harsh winter, there were a number of days progress was suspended because of rain or snow.

N.C. DOT had contractor Phillips and Jordan on the job the day after the slide, and crews with the company and its contractors were slated to work around the clock seven days a week to reopen the highway. Only weather interfered with the plan.

Before the rockslide, about 19,000 vehicles a day traveled on the road; approximately 45 percent were trucks.

The total cost for the project is estimated to be $12.9 million of which about 80 percent will be reimbursed by the federal government.

Work will continue in the area through the summer as crews complete stabilization efforts - including the installation of rock bolts and anchor mesh - at five additional sites. Both eastbound lanes will be open; however, one westbound will be closed for about three miles for this work.

Before Tuesday's opening, crews still have several tasks to complete before the road reopens, including:

"¢ Drilling 10 more holes on the vertical edge of the slope;

"¢ Installing 31 more rock bolts in the mountain;

"¢ Grouting 225 rock bolts;

"¢ Placing 15 pound plates and one pound nuts on 300 rock bolts;

"¢ Completing construction of a ring net fence - 10 feet high, 110 feet long - to protect motorists from loose rocks or debris that might tumble from the rockslide site;

"¢ Putting traffic control plans into place.

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