Searching for safe passage: Group works for safer wildlife crossings on I-40

Growing up in eastern Kentucky, Frances Figart loved any chance to glimpse the diverse wildlife species roaming those Appalachian foothills — except when the sightings occurred after the creatures had become roadkill, something that occurred all too frequently. She felt their deaths keenly. 

Interstate 40 reopens in Pigeon River Gorge

Westbound drivers are once again good to go through the Pigeon River Gorge on Interstate 40.

Interstate 40 closed indefinitely after another rockslide

Less than four months after a rockslide in Haywood County closed a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 40, it’s happened again.

Shortly after 2 p.m. today, an announcement from the North Carolina Department of Transportation announced the closure.

I-40 slide cleanup causes closure

Cleaning a rockslide on Interstate 40 near the Tennessee State lane will require the N.C. Department of Transportation to keep the interstate closed about one week for the safety of contract workers and those who would be driving in the area.

More retail space coming to Champion Drive

Planning board officials recommended and the Canton Board of Aldermen/women approved plans that will bring an additional 7,000 square feet of retail space to the town’s rapidly growing Champion Drive corridor just south of Interstate 40.

Haywood commissioners back plan to run sewer lines out N.C. 209

haywoodHaywood County commissioners have endorsed a plan to run sewer lines out N.C. 209 to Interstate 40, pledging $300,000 toward the $3 million project should state grant funding for the new sewer line come through.

I-40 cleared of rock-slide debris and open to motorists

Interstate 40 near the Tennessee line in Haywood County reopened early Sunday morning following two rockslides in as many weeks. Only one lane of the Interstate is open through the Pigeon River Gorge near the state line, however.

Following the initial rockslide at mile marker 451 in Tennessee, about one mile from the North Carolina state border on Jan. 31, a second rockslide occurred on Feb. 3 near mile marker 7 in North Carolina.

The westbound lanes of the Interstate in Haywood County were closed to traffic for only six days — shorter than earlier estimates and far shorter than a five-month closure two years ago.

The latest slide left 600 tons of rock in the roadway, with some boulders the size of small cars.

N.C. Department of Transportation crews, with help from Ameritech Slope Constructors Inc. of Asheville, removed an additional 150 tons of loose rock from the mountainside and hauled off the debris from the road by the late afternoon Sunday. The site is now clear and safe for travel.

Slide closes westbound I-40

A rockslide has shut down a portion of Interstate 40 in Haywood County for up to two weeks.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, a rockslide occurred near mile marker 451 in Tennessee, about one mile from the North Carolina border. Unlike the two major landslides in the past 15 years, which caused major problems for businesses in Haywood County, this most recent slide was contained to the shoulder of the road.

“It doesn’t look anywhere near as extensive as the major rock slides years ago,” said Mark Nagi, a community relations officer for Tennessee DOT.

It is unclear what or how big an effect the rockslide will have on businesses in Haywood County.

“That is just something that we can’t answer at this point in time,” said CeCe Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “Hopefully, this will not have a big effect on business in Haywood County.”

For now, county tourism leaders are spreading the word that Interstate 40 is still open near Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Canton and Clyde.

“We are just thinking how to keep the doors open,” Hipps said.

The Haywood County and Maggie chambers and the Tourism Development Authority have emailed businesses and posted information on their websites about the slide and encouraged visitors not to cancel their plans.

“We want to make sure that people are not deterred,” Hipps said.

Winter means a slower tourist season for most of the area, which gets a majority of its tourism business in the summer and fall. However, Cataloochee Ski Area is one of the local attractions that could be negatively impacted by the natural disaster as people will have to tack on extra travel time.

“The route to Maggie Valley is still open,” said Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Hopefully, the customer base at Cataloochee will add on that extra time.”

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is stopping motorists at Exit 20 near Jonathan Creek in Haywood County and are directing them to an alternative route through Asheville using I-26.

Anywhere between 20,000 and 25,000 vehicles travel the closed stretch of Interstate 40 each day.

As of late Tuesday morning, no traffic delays had been reported, according to NCDOT.

There is no official cause of the slide, but Nagi said the recent freeze and thaw of temperatures played a part.

“That contributed I’m sure at least in some way,” he said.

TDOT is still analyzing the slide and deciding how to clean it up. The night prevented officials beginning the process sooner.

“We had to wait for the sun to start rising before we could get a good look at everything,” Nagi said.

In late 2009, a rockslide shut down a section of Interstate 40 for about six months. Haywood County businesses saw a stark decline in customers as a result because travelers coming from the west were forced to tack more than 70 miles onto their trip.

 

A long detour

To Tennessee: The official detour around the closed portion of I-40 sends people north from Asheville on I-26 to Johnson City, Tenn. and finally onto I-81 South to get back to I-40. The trip adds an extra 70 miles to the trip.

Plows miss part of I-40

Motorists beware: a no man’s land at exit 37 on Interstate 40 may not be plowed and salted in bad weather with the same regularity as the rest of the highway.

The stretch in question lies near the Haywood-Buncombe county line, where a few hundred yards of the Interstate are occasionally overlooked. Plows and salt trucks coming from opposite directions — one crew from Haywood and another from Buncombe — use exit 37 as a natural turn-around point before heading back the other way.

“Essentially the county line is within a few hundred feet,” said Ed Green, the Department of Transportation maintenance engineer for Division 13, a seven-county area that includes Buncombe.

But there is a short stretch of Interstate between the exit ramp and the on ramp — including a bridge over the road below — that gets missed.

“Who does the bridge?” Green said in response. “I am not sure about who does that. At some point, some of them overlap, but they may not do it every time depending on how bad conditions are.”

One crew or the other has to overshoot exit 37 to avoid leaving a gap. Since the bridge has no shoulders, going past the exit in order to hit the bridge and then backing up isn’t an option.

“That’s too dangerous,” said Ben Williams, DOT maintenance supervisor in Haywood County. “The only way to do it is run past it.”

But when Haywood’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they have to continue for several miles to the truck weigh station before they can turn around. If Buncombe’s trucks overshoot exit 37, they can’t turn around until exit 33.

And that’s exactly what they do — most of the time that is, according to Chad Bandy, DOT maintenance supervisor in Buncombe County.

“A lot of times what we’ll do is go into Haywood County some, and they come into Buncombe County some,” said Bandy.

But occasionally, it gets skipped.

The territory around exit 37 lies on Buncombe’s side of the county line and is technically Buncombe’s responsibility — not Haywood’s. Plow and salt truck drivers coming from Buncombe decide whether to turn around at exit 37 or keep going to exit 33 “as conditions warrant,” Bandy said.

One Tuesday morning in early February there were two wrecks due to ice on the exit 37 bridge — one on each side of the Interstate, according to accident reports by the N.C. Highway Patrol.

That morning, Buncombe crews plowing and salting the road passed over the bridge only every other trip, Bandy said. The other trips, they turned around at exit 37 and didn’t proceed over the bridge all the way to the county line.

Mary Clayton, who commutes daily to Haywood Regional Medical Center from Buncombe County, said ice on the bridge threw her for a loop that morning.

“I didn’t even realize the weather was bad or the roads were bad. Then I hit the bridge and as soon as I hit the ice, well, I lost it,” Clayton said.

In all fairness, there were other weather-related wrecks on I-40 near exit 37 that morning as well, but not on the section that lies in no man’s land.

“There was one, two, three, four, five, six wrecks near the 37,” said Jennifer Hodge, an office assistant for the North Carolina Highway Patrol in Buncombe County.

Four of those six wrecks were due to icy roads, according to the accident reports. Two were on the bridge, which lies inside the no man’s land, while two were just east of it — indicating that the road was icy in other areas too, and that less-than-diligent plowing of the bridge isn’t necessarily to blame.

I-40 is a priority for Buncombe plow and salt trucks. Two drivers are assigned to the Interstate and make continual passes the duration of a snowstorm.

But there’s no log that shows how often Buncombe’s trucks turn around at exit 37, skipping the bridge in the process, versus continuing on to exit 33.

“We don’t keep a record of every trip the truck makes,” Bandy said.

 

Highway Patrol lodges concerns

Inconsistent plowing at exit 37 hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Between Haywood and Buncombe is kind of a no-man’s land,” N.C. Highway Patrol Sergeant Henley said. “Buncombe handles one side and Haywood handles the other.”

Motorists who commute regularly have noticed in the past that the stretch between the exit ramp and on ramp can be snowier than the rest of the interstate.

It was such a problem last winter that the Highway Patrol held a meeting with Buncombe County DOT maintenance workers this fall to discuss it before another winter hit.

“It was addressed with them and they assured us it would be taken care of,” Henley said.

Bandy said he remembered the meeting, but not that particular topic.

“I mean, yeah, we talked about, you know, a lot of things with snow and ice,” Bandy said.

But he didn’t remember concerns about exit 37 specifically.

“Not that I recall, but there may have,” Bandy said. “I don’t remember that particular one, but it may have come up.”

Henley recalls it clearly, however. He said the Buncombe DOT workers assured troopers that they had a protocol for dealing with exit 37.

However, that protocol remains difficult to ferret out.

Green, who initially said “I am not sure who is doing what out there” pledged to look into it. A few days later, after talking to Bandy, he reported back.

“I talked to our folks and found out they are treating it. They go all the way to 33. Not every time but most of the time,” Green said. “They assured me it was being taken care of.”

When asked whether the Buncombe and Haywood maintenance units call each other ahead of time to coordinate who will do the bridge, the answer was “no.”

“We don’t,” Bandy said. But, “during the event as conditions warrant, we do talk to each other,” he added.

Ben Williams, the maintenance supervisor in Haywood County, confirmed that the two units don’t call each other to coordinate ahead of time.

“Sometimes it depends on who gets there first. If it is there and it needs pushing we’ll do it,” Williams said. “We are very fluid.”

Bandy and Green said it makes more sense to let the plow drivers make that decision on the ground, since it depends on timing of who arrives there first and how bad the road is.

“They are not really going to know until they get there,” said Green.

However, that’s not the impression Henley was given at the meeting last fall when troopers asked about a protocol for making sure the stretch wasn’t forgotten.

“They kind of assured us they had one,” Henley said.

Henley said it would be preferable for crews to decide prior to a storm who would do it.

Bandy and Williams, the maintenance supervisors in Buncombe and Haywood respectively, both referred to each other as friends, and even talked to each other in between interviews for this article. As friends, it may be one reason they don’t feel an official protocol is necessary.

“Ben and his counterpart in Buncombe are good friends, and I am sure they have it worked out,” said Mark Gibbs, the maintenance engineer for DOT’s Division 14, a 10-county area that includes Haywood County.

It could also explain why Williams would send Haywood County trucks into Buncombe County simply to be a good neighbor, despite struggling with not enough money for snow removal in his own county.

Gibbs said he has never asked Williams how the stretch at exit 37 is handled. He travels the section of I-40 every morning on his commute to Sylva. This is the first winter he has been making the commute, but has never noticed a problem.

“Every time I have been through there, there has been very little transition between the two lines,” Williams said. “The coordination of both counties, even though it is across Division lines, seems to work fairly well.”

Canton to see long-awaited sewer upgrade near I-40

Canton will be opening its doors to new business when a long-awaited upgrade to its Champion Drive sewer line is completed next year.

The update, which town officials say has been on the list of top priorities for several years, will cost $1.2 million and should take a little more than a year to complete.

Town Manager Al Matthews said that the current system is already overtaxed, and that’s preventing potential new businesses to set up shop in the corridor that runs from Interstate 40 into downtown Canton along Champion Drive.

“The line is drastically undersized for the new growth and development along Champion Drive,” said Matthews. “It [the upgrade] is a fairly broad-reaching economic development tool as well as meeting those needs that are in existence now.”

According to Matthews, the current line is at such capacity right now that even existing businesses in the area are unable to expand and maintain sewer service.

Once the larger line is in place, however, it will serve the new livestock market and provide capacity for both business expansion and new businesses alike.

The crux of the problem, said Matthews, is an over-extension of the line’s original intent. For example, the portion that serves the multitude of businesses between Sagebrush Steakhouse and Arby’s was only originally intended to serve the steak restaurant. But when Canton saw explosive growth along the road, the sewer capacity didn’t expand along with it.

Now, with the birth of a new urgent care center on the road imminent, appropriate sewage capabilities are urgently needed.

As Matthews said, the concept has been bandied about for some time, with the idea being that larger, big-box stores may look to Canton – almost equidistant between Waynesville and Asheville – as the prime location to draw shoppers from the outskirts of both cities. The industrial park that is also tied onto the line is another prime candidate for expansion and additional business creation.

Now, said Matthews, the area will once again have the trifecta necessary for new building of any kind – open real estate, water services and sewer capabilities.

Funding will be coming from several different sources, including a $100,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and a $600,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Center. Matthews said the county has agreed to pay a share of the costs, though to what extent is as yet unclear.

County Commissioner Kevin Ensley expressed support for the project, deeming it beneficial for the whole of the county in terms of economic growth and development.

“When a sewer line goes in, then business will follow,” said Ensley.

Work on the improvements is slated to begin within months, said Matthews, who hopes to have a permit for the construction in hand within 60 days.

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