A winding drive on Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River Gorge will soon take a little longer than normal.
A contractor for the N.C. Department of Transportation will close one lane in each direction approaching Exit 7 starting Saturday with construction continuing into May.
Crews will be replacing the 56-year-old bridge on I-40 over Harmon Den Road and Cold Springs Creek in Haywood County. The bridge at Exit 7 is approaching the end of its service life and needs to be replaced. The new bridge will be built to modern industry standards and include two wildlife paths under the bridge.
NCDOT and Tennessee Department of Transportation officials have been coordinating on a traffic management plan for anticipated major delays.
Both agencies insist on one of two alternatives for drivers: Either participate in the zipper-merge on I-40, or take I-26 and I-81 — an option that adds 45 minutes to a typical commute between Asheville and the I-40/I-81 interchange.
“There are a lot of factors in play here, including the absolute need to replace the bridge, the topography of the area, and the lack of services for more than 20 miles,” NCDOT Division 14 Construction Engineer Mitchell Bishop said. “We considered a variety of construction and traffic alternatives before settling on the onsite detour during the winter as the best option.”
No driver should take any exit between Newport, Tenn. and Asheville to traverse mountain roads. While some of these roads might be suggested by travel apps, they may be gravel rather than paved and could be steep or include sharp curves. Trucks are prohibited from driving U.S. 25/70 through Madison and Cocke counties.
Transportation officials are alerting drivers of the delays well before the work zone begins. Digital signs as far east as Burke County, as far south as Henderson County, and as far west as Knox County, Tenn. will alert drivers of the lane closure and suggest I-26 and I-81 as alternative routes. NCDOT and TDOT officials will monitor conditions and publish delay information from Knoxville to south Asheville.
Real-time traffic information is available at www.DriveNC.gov in North Carolina and www.SmartWay.Tn.gov in Tennessee. Truck drivers will be alerted through DriveWyze in-cab software.
“For drivers, some days the best option will be to go north to Kingsport (Tenn.),” said NCDOT Regional Intelligent Traffic Systems Engineer Chad Franklin. “Then some days, travel may take a little less time by going slow through the gorge. One of the most important things drivers can do is to plan ahead and plan for delays.”
Drivers heading in both directions toward Harmon Den will use a zipper merge leading up to the construction zone. They will be diverted down the exit ramp and return to I-40 via the onramp.
Plans for the new bridge include a path to help wildlife migrate from one side of the interstate to the other without encountering vehicles. A 9-foot tall fence will funnel animals to the path under the bridge and away from traffic.
Kiewit Infrastructure earned the project’s $19 million contract, which has a final complete date set for May 2024.