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Originally published: 2012-12-07 14:50:18
Last modified: 2012-12-07 14:50:18

DOT describes U.S. 221 widening plan

by Jesse Campbell

Residents and business owners who will be impacted by the widening of Highway 221 from Deep Gap to Jefferson got an in-depth preview of how the roadway will traverse the land during an open house hearing at Ashe High School Tuesday evening.

The presentation was organized by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The purpose of the formal meeting was to gather public feedback and in turn incorporate it into the project’s design when feasible. 

“Public involvement is a very important aspect and is critical to (project) success,” said hearing facilitator Jamille Robbins, of the DOT Human Environment Section. “It’s good to see everyone here, but we want you to go one step further in making your voice heard.”

While everyone’s opinion will be taking into consideration, Robbins began the open house with the caveat that it is impossible for state officials to include every single bit of feedback due to various issues.

“The input must be balanced with safety, sound engineering, costs, and impacts on the natural and human environments so we can put the best product on the ground,” cautioned Robbins.

About the project

A total of 16.1 miles of roadway from the Highway 221 terminus in Deep Gap to the intersection of US 221 Business/N.C. 88 in Jefferson will be widened to four lanes of highway.

Robbins said the purpose of the project is multifold and it is intended to improve traffic flow, increase capacity, eliminate congestion, and reduce the rate of highway crashes.

“The traffic volume (on Highway 221) will increase significantly over the next 25 years,” said Robbins. “By 2035, it will more than double in some locations causing the level of service to fall to an E or F, the lowest levels of service.”

According to the DOT, between June 1, 2004 and May 31, 2007, there were 243 auto crashes along the impacted area of Highway 221. One of those accidents was fatal, 78 cause nonfatal injuries, and 164 of those accidents involved some level of property damage.

The total cost of the widening project is $154.7 million. Right-of-way acquisition will account form $33.9 million of the total cost; utilities will cost $2.3 million and the total construction portion of the amount comes to $118.4 million, according to DOT figures.

Approximately 80 percent of the project will be come from federal funds while 20 percent will be made of state funds, said Robbins.

DOT officials have also proposed an interchange ramp system at the intersection of highways 221 and 421 so West Jefferson bound traffic will not have to cross the pathway of oncoming northbound vehicles. 

Robbins said cul-de-sacs would also be constructed in neighbors impacted by the ramps to control direct access to the expanded highway.

An onramp will also be constructed for commuters merging onto Highway 221 from Wilkesboro.

Access from private driveways onto Highway 221 will be eliminated for safety reasons, said Robbins.

Robbins said the DOT would ensure residences who currently have access to the highway now will retain it once the project is complete.

Another major change in the traffic pattern with the project is that left turn access from side streets onto Highway 221 would be eliminated.

“These are considered the most dangerous moves you can make in a vehicle,” said Robbins. “This will eliminate conflict points and chance of accidents.”

In the future, drivers would make access to the opposing lane of traffic once they made a u-turn on Highway 221 after entering it from a side street from the right.

The construction of the entire project will be divided into five different segments with groundbreaking on each portion of the project to begin after the acquisition of right-of-way, said Robbins.

Right-of-way for Segment “A” in Deep Gap should be acquired in July 2013 with the Okaying of right-of-way of the connecting segments in subsequent years.

Official groundbreaking for the project is expected to occur in July 2015, said Robbins.

According to DOT plans, the vast majority of the widening project will be contained to the existing right-of-way and lay of the road. 

In terms of community impact, a total of 70 residential dwellings and 33 businesses will have to be relocated to make room for the right-of-way and highway widening.

Right-of-way procedures

A right-of-way agent to arrange a meeting will contact affected property owners, said Robbins.

The agent will explain the plans and offer advise on how the project will affect each individual property owner.

Robbins explained that if permanent right-of-way is required — meaning the owner would have to move to make way for the project — professionals familiar with real estate values will evaluate and appraise the property.

An agent will then make a written offer to the impacted property owner, which will consist of a current market value of the property at it’s “highest and best use when appraised,” said a DOT information packet.

The DOT of transportation will also offer relocation assistance for those affected.

Public Comment

While no one signed up for public comment prior to the hearing, Tom Pope, who resides just outside of West Jefferson, urged his neighbors to make sure their voice was heard and accounted for.

“It is very important your comments are recorded and you tell these folks how you feel about the project,” said Pope to the audience in the high school’s auditorium following the DOT’s presentation.

Pope said he has been an Ashe County resident for the past 10 years.

“I came here from the coast in a county that didn’t have any paved roads until after WWII,” said Pope. “Roads are very important to this part of the world. When I first came here, I did some research and found that Ashe County was once known as the Lost Province. You can understand this if you have every taken the Old Wilkesboro Trail.”

Pope added the widening project is “important to the growth of the community” and how it “connects us to the services we need down the mountain and in Boone.

“It is very important we get this road,” said Pope. “When I first came here, it was slated to already be completed by now. I want to see it started tomorrow.”

Other residents were concerned about the current grade of Lemly Hill in the Fleetwood community, which is the steep incline of highway on the north side of the twin bridges leading into West Jefferson.

They hoped it would be fixed with the widening of the highway.

Written comments must be turned into the DOT by Dec. 21.