Widening a highway is more difficult than creating a greenfield one, according to Mike Patton, resident engineer for the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation’s (NCDOT) Division 14, which covers the state’s westernmost and mountainous counties.

The half-billion-dollar effort to widen 17 miles of Interstate 26 is one such case. The project, made more complicated by roughly a quarter-billion annual travelers, a global pandemic and a complex bridge over the Interstate, required some innovative thinking.

Interstate 26

The project is widening 17 miles of Interstate 26 from four lanes to six lanes in Henderson County and to eight lanes in Buncombe County.
Photo courtesy NCDOT

Journey and Destination

The area of I-26 being widened is packed not only with drivers headed from the Midwest to the coast, but with tourists and commuting locals as well. Patton, an almost 30-year NCDOT veteran, emphasizes the project’s need and its impact, thanks to through traffic including high levels of trucking and droves of visitors flocking to Asheville—enough to spend more than $2.8 billion in the city in 2022.

But it is local traffic that sets this portion of Interstate 26 apart from others in the state like I-95 in Eastern North Carolina, says David Uchiyama, NCDOT communications officer for the region.

“That’s the key,” Patton says. “I-26 is really the main artery for a large section of the country to get to the beach or to come visit Asheville.”

work zone

NCDOT contracted with a local tow company to quickly respond to any incidents that may slow traffic in the work zone.
Photo courtesy NCDOT

traffic counts near Asheville show average daily traffic volumes on I-26 as high as 89,000 vehicles per day in 2019, up from 67,000 in 2002.

The first attempt to lighten that load via widening came more than 20 years ago, but a lawsuit led to a 2003 court ruling that NCDOT should conduct a broader analysis of environmental impacts, and the project was put on hold. The need wasn’t put on hold though, and in 2013, the project was reinstated in NCDOT’s 10-year State Transportation Improvement Plan. The environmental impact analysis was expanded per court order and approved in 2016. In 2019, a joint venture of Fluor and United Infrastructure Group was awarded the $263-million contract for the southern portion of the widening. A joint venture of Archer-Western and Wright Brothers Construction won the remainder of the $531-million project.

“I-26 is really the main artery for a large section of the country to get to the beach or to come visit Asheville.”
—Mike Patton, Division 14 Engineer, NCDOT

The project entails widening both directions of the currently four-lane I-26 along almost 17 miles in Henderson and Buncombe counties to six lanes on the southern portion and to eight lanes on the northern portion of the project, closest to Asheville. Work began in October 2019, with a slated 2024 completion, but the project has since been amended and extended to 2025 to add an entirely new exit near a recently constructed Pratt & Whitney manufacturing facility. Details are still in the works for the additional $37.5 million in work, which will be let as a separate project in the fall.

Crews began by constructing a diverging diamond interchange where I-26 meets US 25—another important artery in the area—and improving the US 64 interchange, the main exit for Hendersonville, to a partial cloverleaf with enhanced left turns.

Two rest areas along the route were replaced as well, at $5 million each, constructed by the Archer/Wright JV as part of the Henderson County portion of the project. Work is now entering its final stretch. Earthwork, paving and structure construction activities are reaching 2024 milestones, including the completion of a bridge over the French Broad River, says Justin Nielson, project director with the Fluor-United JV. The next milestone is in summer 2024, when traffic will be placed in its final pattern along the southernmost section of the Buncombe County portion of the project.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Bridge

The Blue Ridge Parkway Bridge includes a total 76 prefabricated concrete segments.
Photo courtesy NCDOT

Righting Road Blocks

The area’s high traffic volume—more than 58,000 daily vehicles—led to two innovative management solutions from NCDOT. The first is the incident corridor management (ICM) system, which synchronizes traffic lights along detour routes to speed traffic along when the highway is closed for work or because of accidents, which are frequent. The second is a contract NCDOT established with a local towing company, Carolina Towing, to station equipment near work areas to quickly respond when a disabled vehicle needs to be removed.

It’s the second such contract NCDOT has utilized, a model it now continues to use across the state, says Uchiyama. Response and clearance times are written into the incentivized contract, as are noted light and heavy-duty tow zones. In this case, Carolina Towing has 20 minutes to be on the scene and 20 minutes to clear the highway, with pay based on how quickly the road gets cleared.

“The project is still dealing with the knock-on effects of the pandemic as the supply chain and labor market continue to recover.”
—Justin Nielson, Project Director, Fluor-United JV

“A wreck on I-26 used to snarl traffic for an hour,” Patton says. “Now their clearance rates are like five minutes, as long as there are no personal injuries. So that has really helped.”

Through the end of 2023, the towing company has responded to 3,359 incentives total, Uchiyama says. Of those, 2,549 have been light tows or passenger car incidents and 810 have been heavy tow incentives or commercial vehicles. Travel times are roughly the same since construction started, and crashes are up about 30%. Both systems have worked well, Patton and other project leaders say. On the night of Dec. 14, both were called into service when a small plane crashed on the worksite when trying to make an emergency landing.

The plane crashed on the highway and burst into flames, injuring the two people aboard, damaging the pavement and stopping traffic. The ICM kicked in for a detour around the closed portion of highway while tow trucks were mobilized to clear the roadway; crews working on the widening project were mobilized to patch up the pavement. Both lanes were reopened around lunchtime the next day.

An onsite crane

An onsite crane, used to place the initial sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge, is now used only to off-load and place those sections.
Photo courtesy NCDOT

Nielson stopped short of naming traffic, which impacted material delivery times and required non-standard work hours, as the project’s top challenge.

When the pandemic hit shortly after work started, Fluor-United adapted its health and safety protocols in response to changing conditions and regulations, Nielson says, and collaborated with NCDOT, subcontractors and suppliers to beat lengthening lead times. NCDOT’s statewide consideration of material price escalations for contracts awarded before March 2022 proved helpful.

“While day-to-day impacts are not as prevalent, the project is still dealing with the knock-on effects of the pandemic as the supply chain and labor market continue to recover,” Nielson says.

“Everything now costs four times what it did a year ago,” Patton adds. “You can try to plan ahead for a lot of things we face, but ... it’s hard to plan for that.”

Precast concrete for items like wall panels and drainage boxes has caused his team the most headaches, including a period of cement shortages, but supply chain issues have cropped up for basically every material at some time through the project, he says. Just as the project was picking up steam, the team adjusted its procurement planning to the new reality, allowing for longer lead times to make sure materials arrive when they’re needed or to store them on site if possible if they arrive early.

prefabricated bridge sections

Due to limited space and steep banks, a segment lifter is being used to lift and place prefabricated bridge sections for the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the interstate.
Photo courtesy NCDOT

Tricky Traverse

The complicated logistics and phased construction schedule for the $14.5-million Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the highway rank as the top project challenges for Nielson, with limited space and steep banks requiring some out-of-the-box thinking.

NCDOT overcame those limitations via a precast segmented bridge design, just the second in the state’s network, says Luke Middleton, resident engineer with RK&K. VSL, a certified segmental bridge contractor that works all over the world, was brought in to handle the project.

The 469-mile parkway has for years ranked among the most-visited National Park Service sites, racking up nearly 16 million visitors in 2022. The new two-lane, 605-ft-long, 36-ft-wide bridge over I-26 also carries a sidewalk and the nearly 1,200-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail which runs from the Outer Banks to the Smoky Mountains. Widening plans necessitated a replacement bridge, as existing bridge piers had to be removed. The new bridge, being built with the balanced cantilever method, is planned to span the highway without piers standing between travel lanes.

Ranging from 80-100 ft tall, the new parkway bridge is an imposing sight for drivers on I-26 coming uphill from the south.

Middleton says the bridge will require a total of 76 prefabricated concrete segments, curving at 6% across its entire length. Fourteen of those segments are for the piers, he adds, with one pier taller than the other.

It took 18 months to cast the entire bridge in Wilmington, N.C.—where NCDOT stationed personnel at the casting yard to ensure specifications were met—with each bridge segment rated at 6,000 psi or higher. The National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration are working to make infrastructure like this last longer to make funds stretch further, Middleton says. Crews are using one crane to off-load and handle the bridge sections, and then it placed the initial segments until there was enough of a bridge surface for the segment lifter, Nielson explains.

“This bridge has been impressive to watch go up,” says Middleton.