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High bids force state to delay road projects

The widening of I-26 has been postponed to 2029. The widening of I-26 has been postponed to 2029.

Major road improvements in Henderson County have been pushed back by a year or more because construction bids are greatly exceeding projections, transportation planners said.

Delayed projects include the eastern-most 5-mile segment of the I-26 widening project and others that have drawn widespread opposition, such as the Kanuga Road widening and N.C. 191 multilane improvement. The widening of I-26 from the airport exit (40) to Four Seasons Boulevard (exit 49) remains on track to start construction this year.
A planner for the French Broad MPO and an NCDOT engineer told the Henderson County Transportation Advisory Committee last week that the DOT is delaying projects across the state.
“DOT informed us that in order to maintain the fund balance they had to delay a large number of projects in our region,” Tristan Winkler, the transportation planner for the French Broad MPO, told the committee. “In Buncombe we have a large number also being delayed. This is something that is affecting projects throughout our state.”
Lonnie Watkins, the top NCDOT engineer for Henderson County, said construction bids are far exceeding the budgeted construction costs.
“They’re 50 percent higher than what we estimated or even more because we flooded the market or we have only one bid and it’s 50 percent higher than our estimate,” Watkins said. “For some of the small projects, some were coming in over 100 percent more than what we were used to seeing a year or two years ago.”
The projects delayed are:
• I-26 widening from Four Seasons Boulevard (exit 49) to the U.S. 25 connector (exit 54), delayed to 2029.
• I-26 interchange at Four Seasons Boulevard, from 2023 to 2025.
• N.C. 191 widening from N.C. 280 to Mountain Road, delayed from 2021 to 2022.
• Kanuga Road widening from Church Street to Little River Road, delayed from 2021 to 2023.
• Widening White Street and extending from Greenville Highway to Spartanburg Highway and replacing bridge over Mud Creek, delayed from 2021 to 2022.
• Replace the South Main Street bridge over Mud Creek, right of way delayed, construction remains scheduled for 2022.
Delays from one year to the next may be insignificant, depending on the month. A project delayed from 2021 to 2022, for instance, could mean that the work is postponed from the spring to summer of 2021. The state’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.
“A lot of these delays were needed to balance the budget across the state,” said David Uchiyama, an NCDOT spokesman for Western North Carolina. “What we find is that the delays are on the construction side. By keeping right of way the same, the affected property owners can move along with the exact same schedule. There’s no reason to panic, freak out or get excited, depending on your point of view.”
Part of the reason for the overruns is that the cost estimates were made during the recession when contractors were hungry and the private sector offered few competing projects.
“A lot of these projects were started when we were coming out of financial crisis of 2009,” Uchiyama said.

No highway projects in 10-year plan

Henderson County also fares poorly in the new 10-year transportation plan the state Board of Transportation plan adopted earlier this month. The plan includes no major new projects in Henderson County, the largest county in the 10-county Division 14. The biggest project funded for the county was the South Grove Street sidewalks to Spartanburg Highway.
Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley, the county board’s liaison to the advisory board and the current chair of the French Broad MPO, said he did not think the lack of new projects was linked to the widespread public opposition homeowners have mounted against numerous road projects, including the Balfour Parkway, which the Board of Commissioners voted to kill. (Lapsley voted no on the motion.)
One reason for fewer projects now, he said, is that many priority projects — I-26 widening, Kanuga Road, N.C. 191 and others — have been funded and remain in the works.
“There’s no shenanigans going on,” he said. “We’ve got so many funded that scored well that pushed us high on the list.” The remaining projects on the county’s list just don’t score as well.
Renee Kumor, the TAC chair, said she doesn’t know why the state plan zeroed out Henderson County.
“We’re not the only community that’s been up in arms about projects but we may have been the most vocal and the one that brought a stop to so many projects at one time,” she said.
An improvement project for Duncan Hill and Signal Hill roads and North Main and the Blythe Street widening failed to make the NCDOT’s new 10-year plan. The state ranks projects based partly on local input but also on safety, traffic volume and congestion.
The North Main project “just doesn’t score very well,” county transportation planner Janna Peterson said. “Blythe Street also didn’t score very well. It wasn’t super likely they would get funded.”
The eastern-most link of the I-26 widening, the four-mile stretch from Four Seasons Boulevard to Upward Road, was a high priority for the Transportation Advisory Committee. It’s been delayed so far out that it’s designated as “beyond committed.”
“It’s still a viable project but for congestion reasons it’s really not just the biggest priority,” Peterson said. “We’re just glad we got all the way to U.S. 64.”
The draft 2020-2029 State Transportation Improvement Program includes 12 new highway projects in Division 14, which is made up of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Polk, Swain and Transylvania counties. The draft STIP includes projects across all transportation modes and in all 100 counties in the state. The list includes 1,266 highway projects, 86 aviation, 235 bicycle and pedestrian, six ferry, 23 public transit and 47 rail projects selected on statewide, regional and division levels. The projects were prioritized based on technical data as well as input from local officials and residents.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the widening from exit 40 to exit 49 had been delayed. It has not; it's scheduled to start in 2019.