Recognizing that the citizenry of the City of Clinton and the County of Sampson feels considerable frustration with the general public’s understanding as to why the Highway 24 project has been so lengthy, and given the abundant rumors surrounding the completion of the project — which may or may not be grounded in fact — I decided to meet with Keith Eason, District Engineer/Project Manager.
Eason cooperated, answering a full bevy of questions and was fully transparent with regard to construction issues and delays.
As those of us who have lived in the area for many years are aware, and as the project history which was provided to me by the Sampson County Manager’s Office states, the existing N.C. 24 facility has long been an element of the Southeastern North Carolina transportation system.
N.C. 24 was widened from a two-lane to a four-lane facility in the vicinity of Clinton between 1968 and 1972 with other improvements made over the years. However, the concept of a new, relocated N.C. 24 facility was first investigated and recommended in the early 1970’s as a fully controlled access facility from I-95 to three miles east of Warsaw.
In 1988, a feasibility study was prepared by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Following that study the NCDOT published the 1988-1996 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and N.C. 24 was identified as a “critical connector” for the region. This designation was given to roads providing access to the strategic highways and those serving regional traffic needs. This project was scheduled for right-of-way protection.
In 1989 there was a mandate that N.C. 24 be improved to a multi-lane facility and subsequently the N.C. 24 Intrastate Corridor was established so as to link Charlotte, Fayetteville and Jacksonville with the port of Morehead City and to provide improved military access between Fort Bragg and Camp LeJeune.
Enviromental and location studies were begun in late 1989 when the project was envisioned as a new location freeway connecting I-95 and I-40 and resulted in the identification of 12 alternatives all to be studied. In 1994, the project was made available for public and agency review with public hearings to obtain input for the preferred alternative.
Wetlands studies indicatedthat, to minimize natural resource impacts, an upgrade of the existing roadway with shallow bypasses of towns should be reconsidered as an alternative. A lengthy process followed, including gathering of traffic data and various location studies including wetlands data. The earliest build alternatives were no longer considered to be reasonable and feasible due to the excessive wetlands impacts of those options as compared with the newer upgrade.
Follow-up meetings were held in each of the affected areas. In the 2004-2010 TIP, construction of the project was anticipated to begin in the fiscal year 2006, which obviously did not happen.
Construction on the roadway of Highway 24 between Clinton and I-95 and in Fayetteville began in January 2014. When asked for causative factors in project delays, Eason stated that the original contract called for completion of everything with the exception of vegetation on Nov. 15, 2017.
Since that date, 447 days have been added to the contract for the following reasons:
• During excavation there was a smell of gas — added 11 days
• Utility delays — 322 days
• Hurricane Matthew — 10 days
• Hurricane Florence — 14 days
• Sewer rehabilitation — 60 days
• Drainage issues — 30 days
The current revised completion date was Feb. 5, 2019.
The questions asked of Eason in my interview and his responses are as follows:
Kermit Williamson (Q): Could you please inform the readers as to the infrastructural issues which have caused additional delays?
Keith Eason (A): With any project there are utility relocations which have to happen and NCDOT does not always have control there as they are dealing with private utility companies (i.e. Duke, Century Link, Star, Piedmont Natural Gas, etc). There were many issues with getting that done. Reasons for the delay were complicated as one company had to wait on another for the relocation to happen.
Q: U-turns are causing massive problems and many are complaining of safety issues resulting from these u-turns. Do you have comments on that issue?
A: Anytime you reduce movements you reduce potential for conflicts which means less accidents. When you close a median but studies have shown you face less conflict by so doing. That is not to say it will always work out that way.
Q: There are problems getting to the Post Office. Will DOT look at alternative ways to get to and from the Post Office. Why was that not considered for a stop light? People are having to turn right out of the Post Office/Lowe’s parking lot and are making dangerous u-turns as quickly as possible so as to turn back to 24West. Comments?
A: We put up a changeable message sign that as you enter Lowe’s you need to go around the back. That is a safe option to leave Lowe’s, go out Pierce Street and go to the stop light. Eason indicated he has traveled this way and it is very easy and a quick access to 24. The problem is getting citizens to use that alternative pattern. There is also an additional island to pour which will not allow those to complete a u-turn at the spot now designated with signage for no u-turns. We welcome suggestions as to how to inform the public for the alternative route out of Lowe’s. If the issue continues, we will keep our eye on that and make changes accordingly. It may be larger signage, etc. but we do want to keep people safe. Our traffic engineers out of Castle Hayne are looking into this specific area as to potential improvements.
Q: The financial impact to business in that corridor is significant according to local business owners. Has there been any consideration for lost business due to delays?
A: None that I know of but I understand and sympathize, but believe me there is not one person who wants to be finished with the project more than I do.
Q: There are many rumors circulating surround the project. Comments?
A: Anytime DOT stops work for any reason such as smell of gas, etc. we cannot expect the contractor to not be compensated by either time or money and in this case the compensation was days added to the contract. Some work was found which was needed was not in the original contract.
Q: We have passed the Feb. 5, 2019, date. How does this affect the project?
A: If the contractor does more work than was originally anticipated on any item (i.e. if they laid more pipe than the contract said they would) that equates to time added to the contract so we are still within the framework of that window and thus are not as of today assessing liquidated damages.
Q: Is there anyway to force the general contractor, Fred Smith Company, to put more workers on the project so the roads could be opened and the traffic flow improved?
A: Contractually, no. They are outside the original completion date but based on time added for legitimate contractual reason, they are operating within the revised completion date. The contractor knows they have this extra time that they are still operating within.
Q: It seems that they are not putting the manpower here that is needed. Contractually is there nothing that NCDOT can do about that.
A: I wish that they would do so and have actually asked them to do so but if within the revised window, the company is looking at it as if they still have time.
Q: Have there been cost overruns and will that affect the new segment of the planned roadbed?
A: There have been cost overruns but that will not affect the new segment which runs from the end of the bypass to Cecil-Odie Road and is scheduled to be let in December 2019.
Q: I assume the curb, gutter and sidewalks are subcontracted. If so, why can they not be immediately addressed and completed?
A: They are subcontracted. I wish I knew the answer to that. In some cases it is legitimate because if they poured it, it then would later have to be dug up because of drainage issues which must be first addressed. Some of it is that the subcontractors have not returned in a timely manner.
Q: Once the main roadbed is mostly complete, what are other issues that will need to be addressed?
A: There are two instances where drainage pipes will need to cross the roadbed. The anticipation is for that to be completed at night so that the traffic flow will be impacted as little as possible.
Q: What is the plan for the overpass and the exits and on ramps onto Faircloth Freeway?
A: Part of the next project will be to rebuild the bridges. They are being replaced because they are functionally obsolete They are being raised because the columns will be moved as the underpinning girders will need to be elevated and the span of the bridge will be longer. Traffic will be diverted from one bridge to the other as the first is being rebuilt and then will be diverted back to the completed bridge when rebuilding the other one. So for a period of time traffic will be two lanes at the bridges rather than the current four lanes.
Q: What is your contact information for our readers who may have additional questions and/or want more information?
A: Tell them that they can contact Keith Eason at the local district engineer’s office, 910-682-5100.
In conclusion, I think that the NCDOT and especially the local district engineer for NCDOT want to complete the project and do so in a safe environment for the motoring public. Eason wants to present a good completed project and wants to spend the time needed to do so. At the same time he reiterated that if he had more control over how the project was done and could so direct the general contractor, he would certainly do so.
I would like to thank Susan Holder, assistant county manager, for assistance with the history of Highway 24 and NCDOT District Engineer Keith Eason for his candid and forthright answers to my questions.
In my opinion, the culprit for excessive delays and issues which have annoyed and frustrated all of us who travel this road is Fred Smith Company mainly because of their unwillingness to put the proper number of workers on-site to fully complete this project which obviously could have been done in a more timely manner.
Repeated attempts to contact someone at Fred Smith Company for a comment have been unsuccessful.
Kermit D. Williamson is owner of Sampson Farmers True Value Hardware in Clinton, a family-owned and operated business. He formerly served as a Sampson County commissioner for 12 years in the 1990s and 2000s, including as board chairman.