The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) configured a contract in June of 2010 to implement improvements along a two-and-a-half mile stretch of NC Hwy 28, and since that time, the project has seen only minor revisions, according to reports from the NCDOT. The state DOT website reveals that the project is fifty percent complete and is on schedule to conclude this November, which is close to the originally planned completion date.
Trent Anderson, Resident Engineer for the NCDOT, is in charge of the $9,665,922 project that seeks to repave and widen some of the curves along the highway, which passes Airport Road and leads into the Cowee community in Macon County. Anderson is a 22-year veteran of the NCDOT and has been managing projects in Western North Carolina for the state transportation department for a number of years. He is responsible for NCDOT projects in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, and Macon counties.
State workers intend to make NC 28 safer for drivers by straightening out the curves, grading portions of the highway, and repaving the entire stretch. State DOT officials also plan to place more culverts along the stretch of the highway to enhance the drainage aspects of the road.
Anderson said that the project is going well, and despite some minor adjustments to the contract, there are no cost-over runs associated with the project. “We’ve had to make some changes at certain points, but those types of changes are inevitable with a large scale project like this,” said Anderson. “The road was built a long time ago, in the 20s I believe, so we have to be careful when we’re making improvements. You never know what you’re going to find and sometimes you have to make some adjustments in the contract to account for unplanned occurrences,” he said.
Thus far, according to Anderson, the project has undergone only five supplemental agreements; contractual adjustments. In total, the five changes do not even add up to a one percent change to the original cost projection of $9.6 million. Anderson stated that there are about 200 line-items in the project, but with large earth moving endeavors, engineers usually have to tweak a contract in order to safely complete the project in a timely fashion. “I decided to put in an order for some stick on reflectors to make the highway safer for commuters at night. The original contract didn’t have a line-item for that so we decided to be safe and put those on the highway to help people see the road at night and hopefully prevent an accident,” said Anderson. “That’s the kind of thing we are talking about with contract adjustments. Nothing major,” he said.
Other supplemental agreements in the project include money for fencing and cattle gates, grading revisions, and open-cutting to remove a steel pipe from underneath a section of the highway. The largest supplemental agreement was for $20,000. The reflectors were the smallest supplemental agreement, costing Anderson’s department an additional $8,000. The five adjustments add up to $63,000, a small amount according to DOT officials. “We’re over a year in and we still are under $10 million,” said Anderson. “There are a lot of rumors going around about what we’re trying to do and some people think that we’re wasting a lot of money or that we’re working way beyond our budget, but people need to know the truth. These are public records and the project is funded with tax payer dollars,” he said.
According to Anderson, there are three project inspectors working at the site. State workers are behind schedule, but only by a few weeks. Anderson stated that they still plan to complete the project by Nov. 20 of this year. Transportation officials are supposed to be 58 percent complete at this point, but they have only completed half of the project. Anderson added that the highway will remain a two lane road, and will not be transformed into a four-lane.
When asked about conflicts with citizens who live along the improvement site, Anderson said that DOT officials usually have to sign agreements with citizens before a project begins. State officials will have an appraiser assign values to an easement or a right-of-way on a person’s property and pay them the listed amount before the project starts; DOT officials are required by law to pay for any damages to a person’s property as well.
“It usually pertains to an easement or a right-of-way,” Anderson said. If the property owner disputes the appraisal, they have the right to file a lawsuit and go to court to get just compensation. The state Attorney General’s office will represent the NCDOT and property owners are responsible for getting their own representation in court. To Anderson’s recollection, only three people who live along NC Hwy 28 have disputed the DOT’s appraisals. He maintained that the number could be higher, but said that, “I’ve talked a few of the people. They are cordial and understanding. They just disagree with our numbers and that’s fine. They have that right,” he said.
Anderson called the procedure a “declaration of taking.” Another term that is closely related to the procedure is “eminent domain.” If the federal or state government can prove in court that a certain piece of property will be used for public use, they can seize the property, but only after the state pays the property owner for what it’s worth. Eminent domain is explicitly stated in the Fifth Amendment in the United States Constitution. “Private Property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation.” According to Anderson, the NCDOT and the state is currently working on sorting out the compensation disputes with several property owners about some of the right-of-way disputes.