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DOT revises plan for Dillsboro bridge project

Plans for a $14 million bridge project in Dillsboro have changed, with the project now expected to take nine months instead of three years and to cost $3 million less than originally proposed. 

Contractor Wright Brothers Construction will realize these savings by opting not to build a temporary bridge over Haywood Road while construction of the new bridge over Scotts Creek is underway, meaning that the U.S. 23 Business corridor connecting Sylva and Dillsboro will be closed for the duration of the project. 

Work is slated to begin on July 7, with the road expected to reopen in spring 2021 featuring a new bridge complete with sidewalk and bike lane. Under the previous plan, construction would have run through 2022. 

“The changes will benefit the entire community by reducing the overall construction time by two years and limiting disruptions and delays to those traveling through the area,” NCDOT Division 14 Engineer Brian Burch said. “We believe the cost savings to the taxpayers, as well as the reduction in the length of traffic impacts to the area of Dillsboro outweigh the short-term inconvenience motorists will face.”

During that time, subcontracted crews would work to complete a retaining wall on Hill Street. Once the wall was completed — expected to occur mid-August — local traffic could use Old Home Town Road through Monteith Park as a detour. 

For the first three months of the road closure, the quickest available detour will use Savannah Drive, Yellow Bird Branch Road and North River Road, a distance of 2.6 miles that adds about five minutes to the trip depending on traffic lights. However, once a wall currently under construction on Hill Street is complete, local traffic will be able to use Old Home Town Road through Monteith Park as a detour. Dillsboro Road is currently closed for wall construction, an endeavor that is expected to wrap up in September. Residents of the Bart Cove community can continue using Old Hometown Road to access Haywood Road. 

While residents will likely reroute using Savannah Drive or Old Hometown Road, the only official, signed detour will direct traffic to use U.S. 74 between exits 81 and 83, a route expected to add about 10 minutes to both drive times. Due to a tight curve at the top of the road, no tractor-trailers will be allowed on the Old Hometown Road route, said Division 14 Construction Engineer Ted Adams. 

Despite the savings in money and time, the revised plan drew divided opinion from local governments when proposed this spring. 

Dillsboro aldermen unanimously approved the plan during a special-called meeting April 20, and according to Mayor Mike Fitzgerald coronavirus-related closures prompted that decision. Because the summer season has been much slower than is typical, traffic impacts will be less costly to the local economy than they otherwise would have been. Additionally, Wright Brothers offered to split its share of the savings with Dillsboro, giving the town $450,000 of its $1.5 million share. The other $1.5 million remains with the state. 

Sylva, meanwhile, issued a letter to the DOT expressing its opposition to the plan, which hinged on the “rushed” nature of the proposal and the lack of opportunity to study its impacts or seek public input. 

“These are substantial changes to the scope of the project and may significantly change the impacts to the community, and these impacts have not been thoroughly studied nor communicated,” Mayor Lynda Sossamon wrote April 24 on behalf of the board.

“The Town of Sylva Board of Commissioners understand that time is of the essence with the contractor, but this decision is too rushed, and the public deserves more information,” she continued later in the letter. “This is a very volatile time. We feel the timing of this decision is hasty during the Covid-19 pandemic. The community and businesses deserve the opportunity to voice their opinions on both bridges being closed, especially when everyone will be getting back to work and businesses will be trying to recover.”

In a May 28 meeting of the county board, Commissioner Mickey Luker said that it would be “a recipe for disaster” to reroute traffic from Haywood Road through Monteith Park and past the Appalachian Women’s Museum located there. He spoke in response to concerns museum board member Cathy Busik voiced about the potential impact that sustained traffic on that road could have to museum fundraising activities. The segment of Haywood Road slated for temporary closure averages 9,605 vehicles per day, according to 2018 numbers. 

In a reply to Sossamon’s letter, Adams wrote that the Haywood Road closure is not a new concept for the project and was studied as one of three alternatives when the project was initially under development. In a 2015 public hearing, the DOT received eight public comments, of which four were in favor of the alterative that would keep Haywood Road open and install an onsite detour bridge. Three of those four responses were from business owners in Dillsboro, which now supports the closure, he wrote.

“The Town of Dillsboro was pretty adamant against closing the road, so we went back and revisited that with them after our contractor was selected,” Adams said in an interview. “They still didn’t have any interest in closing the road, and we relayed that information to our contractor. When all the businesses were shut down (due to coronavirus), our contractor came in and said traffic on that road is now near nothing. Is there any possibility we could revisit this one more time? On behalf of the contractor we went back and talked with the Town of Dillsboro, and they were receptive.”

Adams’ letter also responded to Sylva’s concerns about the lack of additional studies examining the impact of the closure. 

“These additional studies, traffic impact analysis or cost benefit analysis would take longer to complete then the actual construction of the bridge under the closure. With delays occurring under both alternatives, the NCDOT does not believe additional analysis is warranted,” Adams wrote. 

The DOT will work with Jackson County to ensure that emergency management stays updated on the quickest detour route, Adams said. 

“They’ll have to use a detour just like the traveling public, but we’ll be in contact with them and make sure they understand the quickest way around this closure,” he said. 

The road closure will certainly cause travel delays and inconvenience, said Adams, but it’s important to note that the original plan would have had a substantial impact as well. Due to lane closures, drivers would have found themselves sitting in traffic for anywhere from two to 10 minutes, which may well have spurred some people to start avoiding the area. 

“We felt like it was a good option to go ahead and close it, minimize the duration of the project and just get the work done,” he said.

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