The bulldozers and graders are silent for now, but if all goes as scheduled, work will begin later this fall on widening a nearly 30-mile stretch of U.S. 19/23 from two lanes to four, beginning around Mars Hill.
The project will be done in four stages, according to project spokesman Ricky Tipton of the N.C. Department of Transportation. The first stage will start near the Mars Hill exit and continue to the Madison/Yancey County line; the second will extend from there to the Cane River, five miles west of Burnsville; the third from the Cane River to Micaville; and the fourth almost all the way to Spruce Pine.
The first stage, which is scheduled to be put out for bid next month, is the shortest (6.4 miles) but also the most ambitious, with a projected cost of about $70 million. “It involves more earthwork, cuts and excavations than the others,” Tipton explains. Right-of-way acquisition and relocating or demolishing businesses and homes that were in the way was completed two years ago, he says.
The DOT considers the stretch of 19/23 from Mars Hill to Spruce Pine a “strategic highway corridor” because “It’s the main point of access for Yancey, Mitchell and Avery County. It’s their main highway,” says Tipton.
Where the project crosses or runs close to certain streams, they’ll have to be moved. “We’re restoring a lot of streams as part of this project,” says Tipton, returning bends or “meanders” to streams that had previously been straightened, adding rock structures to control stream velocity, and planting native vegetation on the banks. “Over a mile of streams will be restored as part of this first project,” he notes.
By far the most extensive earthmoving work will take place at Windy Gap on the Madison/Yancey County line, where the existing road cut will need to be expanded substantially.
“They’re going to cut it back clear to there,” said service-station owner Raymond Chandler, pointing to a slim pine tree crowning the hillside across from his business, roughly 12 miles southwest of Burnsville. When the project is finished, what is now patchy forest will be a sheer wall of exposed rock.
The project has meant disruptions for some business owners and homeowners along the route, and construction will bring its own share of inconveniences with it when it begins this fall.
“With any project of this size, you’ll have people who are unhappy,” says Tipton. “But most people see the need for it, especially as you get up closer to Burnsville.”
Chandler agrees. “We’ve been waiting for this since the 1950s,” he says.