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Delays in rock slide cleanup push back I-40 opening

Harsh winter weather has delayed the reopening of Interstate 40 until late April, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Snow, rain, heavy winds and bitter cold shut down operations for a total of 14 days, leading to the delay.

“The weather has been the only reason,” said Jon Nance, chief engineer of operations for the DOT. “The contractor has been very aggressive.”

The DOT initially stated the cleanup would take about three months shortly after a massive rockslide buried the interstate near the Tennessee border on Oct. 25.

Following a closer look, the DOT shifted its target for reopening to March, but warned the cleanup could take as long as May.

The cost of repairing the rockslide’s impact remains $10 million, at the upper limit of the original estimate.

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Dean Kirkpatrick, owner of Dean’s Haywood Café near exit 24 of Interstate 40, said he’s disappointed about the delay but understands the reasoning behind it.

Kirkpatrick often interacts with I-40 workers who regularly visit his restaurant and give him the latest updates.

“We appreciate all of them, the road crews, the bridge crews, working day and night,” said Kirkpatrick.

Still, Kirkpatrick admits that January and February have been the two toughest months he can remember in his 40 years of business.

While it’s been months since the DOT shut down the Interstate near his business, Kirkpatrick holds no grudges against the agency.

“They are anxious to get it open just as much as we are,” said Kirkpatrick. “I’m sure they’re getting a lot of flack.”

Businesses that rely on the interstate for tourism are also eagerly anticipating the road’s reopening. Tourism in the region usually starts picking up in April, according to Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

But Collins said the first priority is to make roads safe for travelers.

The DOT has been cooperative changing its signs to let travelers know they can still access Western North Carolina regardless of the road closure, according to Collins. They’ve even placed one such sign in South Carolina, Collins added.

According to the DOT, about 25 inches of snow fell between December and February, a 250 percent increase over the historic average of 10 inches.

Seventeen inches of rain fell on the area during the same period, about a 30 percent increase over the historic average of 13 inches.

In spite of the tough weather, contractors have cleared a rock mass 60 feet wide, 80 feet tall and 20 feet thick — the size of a small apartment building — and are working on installing 590 rock bolts to stabilize the mountainside.

Crews have drilled 230 holes and have installed 125 as of Monday. Drilling for the bolts has been underway for more than seven weeks, but they have finished only a third of the work.

Some bolts are more than 100 feet long. In particularly steep sections of the rock face, bolts must be lowered in place by a helicopter while men in harnesses guide them into place. The bolting process can continue once the Interstate reopens.

The DOT has taken advantage of the 20-mile road closure to work on maintenance projects, including paving tunnels, repairs to four bridges, tree and brush maintenance and slope mowing along the corridor — all of which has amounted to $5.3 million in investments.

“We have not been sitting idly by,” said Nance. “We have done a lot of work.”

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