No. 5: Road projects end, others start

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Construction continues on the underground utility project on Road Street near the Church Street intersection in Elizabeth City, Thursday, Dec. 22.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Editor’s note: Our lookback at the top stories of 2016 continues.

2016 was an important year for transportation in the region, as one vital road project in Elizabeth City came to an end, another got underway and the first signs for what would be the area’s first-ever interstate project were unveiled.

The year also saw a change in plans for replacing the famous S-Bridge in Hertford and completion, across the border in Chesapeake, Virginia, of the second high-rise U.S. Highway 17 crossing over the Elizabeth River.

In Elizabeth City, the N.C. Department of Transportation's $62.2 million Elizabeth Street restoration project finally came to an end this summer, a year late and roughly $5 million over the original contract price of $57.1 million.

Shortly before the Fourth of July holiday, the work on Elizabeth Street from Road Street to the Camden County side of the Pasquotank River was officially completed. In a brief ceremony, a group of city officials helped state transportation workers remove some of the last orange safety barrels from Elizabeth Street. The barrels’ removal marked the end of a massive effort to restore the worn-out driving surface on Elizabeth Street between Road and Water streets, replacement of the antiquated 1931 eastbound drawbridge over the Pasquotank River and renovation of the early 1970s westbound drawbridge over the river.

Randy Midgett, the DOT engineer who oversaw the project, said the project’s cost was within a contingency budget appropriated for the project. He said the additional costs resulted mainly from conditions encountered that were not foreseen in the design stage of the project.

In August, work also began on a $1.4 million project to replace worn-out water and sewer pipes underneath Road Street between Ehringhaus and Elizabeth Streets. The work is a required step to get DOT to repave the roadway whose uneven, bumpy surface has long been a source of complaints for city motorists.

Because of the complexity of the project, the work on Road Street was actually split into two contracts. Contract One, which is nearly finished by RPC Contracting of Kitty Hawk, includes replacement of water and sewer lines between Elizabeth Street and a point near Grice Street. Contract Two will complete the utility work on Road Street between Grice Street and Ehringhaus Street.

Completion of both contracts is expected this spring. However, because all of DOT’s resurfacing work is already contracted out for 2017, motorists will have to wait until 2018 for a smoother ride on the affected part of Road Street. 

Two area bridge projects also saw milestones in 2016. In September, DOT officials announced the agency had changed its mind about the best way to replace the aging S-Bridge that crosses the Perquimans River and links the towns of Hertford and Winfall.

Nearly two years ago, DOT said a fixed, 33-foot-tall high-rise bridge costing $19 million was its preferred option to replace the S-Bridge. Concerns expressed by Hertford residents about the high-rise bridge’s impact on Hertford’s historic district, however, plus the fact the current swing bridge is such an iconic part of the town, eventually led DOT to switch to a replacement option that includes a new swing bridge. 

The fact that the town boards of Winfall and Hertford and the Perquimans County Board of Commissioners endorsed the swing bridge option was mentioned in DOT’s announcement just before the long Labor Day weekend.

DOT’s new preferred option will cost a lot more — $31 million versus $19 million — and shut down the traffic link between Herford and Winfall for a lot longer — up to three years instead of just eight months. However, opponents of the high-rise bridge saw DOT’s switch as a victory for Hertford and Perquimans County because the swing bridge was the option favored by most residents. The new swing bridge will be built in roughly the same place as the current S-Bridge. Construction could start sometime in 2018.

Also this fall, Virginia transportation officials completed work on the second span of the Veterans Bridge crossing the Elizabeth River. The bridge, which will become a toll road early next year, is part of a $399.4 million project designed to four-lane U.S. 17/Dominion Boulevard from north of George Washington Highway to the interchange for Interstates 64 and 464.

The improvements to Dominion Boulevard, which started in January 2013, are designed to in part help ease traffic congestion in what had long been a bottleneck for Albemarle residents who commute to work in the Hampton Roads area.  

Officials in North Carolina have long hoped for a four-lane roadway from the North Carolina state line to the interstates in Chesapeake, Va., believing it could help boost economic development efforts in Camden, Pasquotank and other neighboring counties. 

Perhaps the biggest transportation announcement of the year, however, came in October when North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory was on hand in Edenton for the unveiling of a “Future Interstate 87” sign. The I-87 sign, and the others like that have been posted on U.S. Highway 17 and U.S. Highway 64, signifies that there will someday be an expressway-quality route between Raleigh and Nofolk, Virginia via Williamston, Windsor, Edenton, Hertford and Elizabeth City.

Congress approved the interstate's creation last year, but funding wasn't included for bringing roads between Raleigh and Norfolk up to interstate standards.

Currently, U.S. Highway 64 is an interstate-like route from Raleigh to Williamston. U.S. Highway 17 is four lanes from Williamston to Virginia's Hampton Roads area. However, on the North Carolina side of the border, motorists still encounter stoplights in Williamston, in parts of Windsor and Hertford and at Morgans Corner.

Jerry Jennings, DOT’s chief engineer for the Albemarle, said upgrading the Raleigh-to-Norfolk corridor in North Carolina to interstate standards would cost approximately $1 billion.