Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Highway 321 headaches over, for now

The barricades are gone, so are the flashing signs announcing the schedule of road closures.

All four lanes of Highway 321 are now open for traffic going up into the mountains between Lenoir and Blowing Rock.

A $63 million widening project caused major traffic headaches for the past six years along the 7 mile stretch of highway.

Twice each week, for several hours at a time, the road would shut down completely for blasting. At other times, lanes were blocked, traffic slowed to a crawl and sometimes it would take an hour to get through the construction zone.

The project was supposed to be finished in August of 2008 but cutting through the mountains took longer than officials expected. There is still some paving to be done in the lower section of the project when the weather warms up but the road is in shape to stay open until then, said officials.

On Wednesday, Alan Kirby was seen directing traffic around a small work project. "There are a couple of small things left to do, but nothing major, he said. Wednesday was his last day on the job. Kirby expects to be unemployed for a few weeks "Then when they come back to do some paving I'm supposed to come back and help but after that I don't know what I will do."

The company that handled the project, English Contractors out of Virginia, paid thousands of dollars in penalties for not completing the project on time, according to state officials.

Though the barricades are down on this project, Highway 321 will see them again, say officials. The final stretch of the two lane portion of the road, between Blackberry Ridge and Blowing Rock, is slated to be widened to four lanes. Bid will be let on the project this summer with construction expected to begin next year.

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