The sound of traffic on Interstate 26 was loud and clear as North Carolina Department of Transportation officials announced plans to begin an extensive widening project on a portion of the highway between Asheville and Hendersonville this month.

Gathered on the upper level of a parking deck at the Biltmore Park Town Square Hilton Sept. 25, transportation planners and engineers described the long-term project as measure to improve traffic safety and connectivity on the high-traffic corridor.

“We need a reliable, safe interstate connection,” said Mark Gibbs, NCDOT Division 13 engineer.

The $534 million project involves widening I-26 to four lanes in each direction from Brevard Road to U.S. 25 in Buncombe County and expanding the interstate to three lanes from U.S. Highway 25 to U.S. Highway 64 in Henderson County.

After holding a series of public hearings the past few years and making changes to accommodate citizen concerns, the project was finalized and contractors hired to begin construction on the four-year project. Fluor/United was awarded the contract for working on the Buncombe County side of the project and Archer/Wright is the contractor for the Henderson County portion.

“It is important that we are finally able to implement this,” said Brian Burch, NCDOT Division 14 engineer. “What we have done (in the past few years) is somewhat astonishing … It’s taken a lot of effort from a lot of people.”

The ambitious project requires replacing the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the interstate. State transportation officials have worked with the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of the Interior and National Park Service to develop a plan for building the new bridge and removing the existing one in stages.

During the project, the NCDOT will implement safety procedures and alternatives for river-goers to ensure their safety. A “safe passage lane” in the water for river users will be created, which includes floating navigational aids to reduce the risk of accidents. Contractors working in this area also will be required to install a catchment device on the structures to prevent construction material from falling in the water, according to NCDOT information on the project.

The four-year project includes building eight new bridges on or over I-26 at the Biltmore access road, Glen Bridge Road, Fanning Bridge Road, Cane Creek, Butler Bridge Road, Naples Road, Brookside Camp Road, Clear Creek Road and Clear Creek.

Two rest stops on this portion of I-26 also will be replaced as part of the project.

To address traffic safety concern during construction, state transportation officials are coordinating efforts with area law enforcement agencies. Disabled vehicles will be removed as quickly as possible by towing contractors working with the NCDOT.

Installation of work area signs is getting under way in the French Broad River area, said Nathan Moneyham, NCDOT Division 13 assistant construction engineer.

“We’re excited to begin construction of the first phase,” said Ted Adams, NCDOT Division 14 construction engineer.

Environmental control measures

During the announcement of the beginning project, state transportation engineers talked about the vast amount of excavation that will take place to create additional lanes. Land-disturbing activities such as soil removal can cause sediment to flow into rivers and streams, affecting the health of aquatic life.

To protect river water quality and wildlife, the NCDOT has developed a plan to minimize negative impacts on the environment. Silt fences designed to keep sediment from flowing into the river will be installed along the work areas, as well as basins with sifters that help contain run-off, said Roger Bryan, environmental officer with NCDOT Division 13.

“All erosion control measures have been upgraded,” Bryan noted.

Also work sites will be checked on a daily basis to ensure that the erosion controls are working effectively, he said.

“Sediment (control) is the main area of focus,” Bryan remarked.

The parkway bridge replacement will affect the path of the Mountains to Sea trail, which parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway in many sections. Some portions of the trail will be relocated. During construction, the National Park Service is planning to provide detour signage routing hikers away from work areas.

The NCDOT will also coordinate efforts with the park service and other involved agencies to re-establish native vegetation that may be disturbed by the project, according to the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the highway project.

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