NC DOT SCHEDULES WORK, INCLUDING TUNNEL REPAIRS, ON I-40 IN PIGEON RIVER GORGE

The state Department of Transportation plans two construction projects in the Pigeon River Gorge in northern Haywood County that will make traveling the remote section of Interstate 40 there at night even more of an adventure than usual.

One project includes replacing lighting and repairing walls in the three tunnels on the highway and the other is to stabilize the slope above the road just west of Exit 7.

DOT engineers do not expect major impacts on traffic flow on the curvy highway. All traffic lanes must be kept open between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily for both projects and at least one lane will be kept open in each direction at all times. The exception is that blasting as part of the slope stabilization project must be done during the day and will cause temporary road closures.

The tunnel work includes replacing existing lights with new systems that will use energy-saving LED lights, said Chris Lee, a DOT engineer working on the project.

The light systems and generators that power them in the event of a power outage are decades old and need replacement, Lee said. The generators contain old diesel engines designed to power tractor-trailers, he said, so “they’re super-hard to find parts for.”

Tunnel walls are in fairly good shape but need repairs in some places, Lee said.

The most noticeable change may be application of a white epoxy coating over the concrete walls. The coating is specially designed to reflect light, meaning it will take less electricity to illuminate the tunnels.

While the changes should improve visibility in the tunnels, “I think we’ll still keep that sign up that says remove your sunglasses” before entering, he said.

Also to be replaced are systems that adjust light levels inside the tunnels according to the time of day. DOT keeps interior lights brighter during the day and dimmer at night near tunnel entrances to reduce the contrast drivers experience between light levels outside the tunnels and inside, thus making entering tunnels safer, Lee said.

Work on the tunnel project could begin as soon as late March and is to be completed by mid-July 2017. Lee said the contract time is so long because workers can only close or narrow lanes at night. A Virginia company was the low bidder for the project at $6.9 million.

DOT plans to award a contract next month for the slope stabilization project. It involves removing soil and rock that could one day slide downhill, building a retaining wall and possibly putting anchors in the remaining rock to hold it in place, said Brian Burch, division construction engineer for DOT.

The slope is above a 0.4-mile section of road just west of the interchange with Cold Springs Creek Road.

A slide occurred in that area during the period when another slide a few miles to the west kept I-40 closed from October 2009 to April 2010, Burch said.

DOT engineers have done a comprehensive study of slopes along I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge and the section to be worked on was identified as the next priority for stabilization, Burch said. Periodic slides have closed the road several times over the years.

The slope stabilization work is scheduled to begin as soon as late March and be completed before May 2016.