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I-40 opens at last

Interstate 40, closed since October due to a massive rockslide, reopened with little fanfare on Sunday evening. For the people who depend on the road for their living, seeing the traffic flow again brought a sense of relief.

“We are thrilled to death,” said Mike Sorrells, owner of Sorrell’s Marathon and Auto Repair in Jonathan Creek. “You do not know how much that road means to your well-being until it’s not there.”

The work on I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge will continue through the summer as crews complete stabilization efforts, but with both eastbound lanes and one westbound lane open, Western North Carolina’s main transportation artery is back in business.

The total cost for the repair project, initially slated for completion in February, is estimated to be $12.9 million, and according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the federal government will cover nearly 100 percent of the cost.

For business owners like Sorrells, though, there is no way to recover what was lost. They watched with horror as the timetable for the road opening was pushed back due to poor weather conditions.

“It looked like this thing was going to get opened in February, and it was like a blow to the stomach when we learned it wouldn’t be until late April,” Sorrells said.

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The economic effects of the I-40 rockslide have been a source of attention ever since the road was closed. In March, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced that it would hand out $1.4 million in loans to businesses affected by the slide, but the money was spread over the region from Asheville to Sevierville, Tenn.

Before the rockslide, about 19,000 vehicles a day traveled on the road, and almost half of them were trucks. Businesses that directly relied on the commercial traffic, like gas stations and hotels have been hardest hit by the closure.

Sorrells said he was forced to lay off weekend staff as his sales of gas and tires plummeted.

“We survived,” Sorrells said. “It was very difficult. You really saw the fall-off on the weekends.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said the road reopened just in time for the summer tourism season.

“We’re thrilled obviously,” Collins said. “We have a lot of special events, beginning with this weekend, and hopefully we’ll have a good attendance with the road being opened.”

Still, the authority’s numbers have been bleak during the closure. Occupancy tax numbers were down 25 percent in the month of January from 2009 and 7 percent to date for the year. The numbers of walk-in visitors at the Canton Visitor Center were even more stark, only half of what they were a year ago through March.

Collins said the low numbers in January and February were likely the result of the weather, the economy, and the road closure.

Until the road reopened, eastbound travelers were detoured to I-26 on a route that added 53 miles and nearly an hour of driving time. The detour was not enough to stop skiers from visiting Cataloochee Ski Area, which enjoyed a successful winter season this year.

“We had a good season and the folks from Knoxville were able to get to us,” said Tammy Brown, Cataloochee’s marketing director. “We found that by offering differing routes, folks were able to deal with it.”

Brown attributed Cataloochee’s success to a great winter of natural snow and ideal conditions for snowmaking. The fact that the ski area did so well showed that the closure of I-40 was not a death sentence for tourism-based businesses on its own.

Traffic was also up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which experienced a 5 percent increase in visitors over last year, primarily because U.S. 441 through the park offered an alternative route across the mountains.

While the interstate opened officially on Sunday, the work to stabilize the rockslide area will continue through the summer as crews complete the installation of rock bolts and anchor mesh at five separate sites. Both eastbound lanes are open, but one westbound will remain closed for about three miles and westbound truck traffic is restricted.

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