Last updated: January 31. 2014 4:29PM - 6863 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com



This is the scene of a slope collapse along N.C. 89 at Lowgap which has caused the N.C. Department of Transportation to change gears with a curve-realignment project there.
This is the scene of a slope collapse along N.C. 89 at Lowgap which has caused the N.C. Department of Transportation to change gears with a curve-realignment project there.
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LOWGAP — Given this area’s geological heritage, many construction projects encounter problems with rock, but in an ironic twist the completion of work to realign a deadly curve on Lowgap Mountain has been delayed by the presence of no rock.


The expectation of solid natural material along a hillside on N.C. 89 had been figured into the engineering equation for a state Department of Transportation project to realign the infamous Snowbird Curve. The motivation for the work was numerous deadly accidents over the years fueled by the narrowness and sight limitations posed by the curve, especially for large trucks.


But that expectation was undermined by a surprise at one point as crews labored to reconfigure the quarter-mile curve. “We didn’t hit rock,” explained Brandon Whitaker, a DOT engineer based in Elkin. “The original project was designed to hit rock in that cut.”


Crews kept digging deeper into the hillside hoping to encounter it, which essentially would have lent stability to the embankment along the realigned curve. Loose soil dominated instead and led to a collapse, throwing a kink into what had been a smooth project to that point.


“We had the road ready to pave, and the slope moved the week before we were supposed to start our paving,” the DOT engineer said.


This prompted the highway agency to rethink its strategy, and put work on hold in the meantime. “We hope to start back in the spring,” Whitaker said earlier this week.


Tweaks On Tap

A Plan B subsequently was devised, calling for the alignment of N.C. 89 to be altered from the original design in order to prevent slides directly onto the roadway. This alternative also is to include the installation of a type of “low-energy” fence, which will catch any debris that does tumble down, Whitaker said.


“We didn’t feel good about the (initial) design going forward for the future, so we decided to try that system.”


Discussions are now under way with a contractor to make those tweaks. “We’re still negotiating — I don’t have good prices,” Whitaker said of what the extra work might cost.


But he said it should be only slightly above the original $1.6 million price tag for the curve-realignment project. “We’re looking at about 1 to 2 percent.”


The change also does not present a problem from a scheduling standpoint since the work had progressed rapidly until the design setback, Whitaker said. “I don’t expect a significant delay,” added the engineer, who says the original timeline for the project might still be met “because this was so far ahead of schedule.”


When the original construction contract was awarded by the DOT in 2012, a completion date of Nov. 28, 2014 was announced for the project.


Whitaker commented this week on the rare occurrence of not hitting rock at the site targeted for the additional work, whenever it exists all around. “If you go a mile up the road, it’s solid rock,” he said.


Something that local construction crews stumble onto all the time simply didn’t materialize in this case, Whitaker said.


“It just wasn’t there.”


Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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