SMITHFIELD — N.C. Transportation Secretary Tony Tata was in town Thursday morning to check on the progress of the U.S. 70 bridge project.
Several Smithfield officials came to the construction site on Market Street to meet Tata. Among them were Councilmen Emery Ashley and Perry Harris, Police Chief Michael Scott, Fire Chief Patrick Harris and other town staffers.
Tata thanked everyone for their patience during the project, which has brought traffic on Market down to a trickle and hurt business on both sides of the Neuse River.
I know this can be contentious, Tata said. Youre cutting the main artery of the town so thanks for your teamwork on this.
Tata asked project manager Corey McLamb about the progress on the project. McLamb confirmed what town leaders have quietly suspected in recent months the bridge is ahead of schedule.
But McLamb warned that delays were still possible. I dont want to let the cat out of the bag or anything, he said. Theres still a lot to do.
McLamb stopped short of offering an exact date, but he said the bridge should open in time for the annual Ham & Yam Festival, which runs May3-4.
Town officials are already thinking about what comes after the bridge opens. Councilman Harris asked Tata about funding for beautification. The projects budget does not include money for landscaping.
Bob Worsham, chairman of the Smithfield Appearance Commission, said his group would like to get about $30,000 to landscape the entrance to downtown. Tata said funding was up in the air.
Replacement is just a dent
Crews began pouring concrete on the bridge last week. Fran Love-Watkins, assistant resident engineer with the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the project had dealt with only minor weather delays.
The biggest weather setback was the snow that fell on Johnston County last month. That happened on the weekend, delaying some light preparation work. Light rain hasnt bothered crews at all, Love-Watkins said.
Theyve usually got (work) they can do even when its raining, she said.
As of Thursday, crews had poured concrete on the spans of the bridge closest to downtown and West Smithfield. They were awaiting tests results from the DOT lab in Raleigh showing the concrete on each end was strong enough to support the middle.
We should get those results Monday, Watkins said. We dont foresee any issues with them.
The $5.3 million project is one of nearly 600 bridge replacements the DOT has scheduled between July 2011 and the end of this year. Tata said theres still more work to be done.
Weve got thousands of bridges across the state, he said. Thats just a dent in the number that need to be done.
One proposal last fall called for replacing the two bridges on U.S. 301 between Smithfield and Four Oaks. But the DOT shelved those projects, at least for now, because taking out those bridges could slow shipping along the East Coast if Interstate 95 closed for some reason. Meanwhile, business owners including Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker, who owns White Swan BBQ were strongly opposed to the idea.
When it eventually replaces the two bridges, the DOT will need to build temporary bridges or build four-lane bridges two lanes at a time to guarantee that north-south continues to flow. At the moment, theres no money for temporary bridges or additional lanes.
Gus Tulloss, who represents Johnston County on the N.C. Board of Transportation, said he was unaware of the U.S. 301 bridge projects. But he said the board is committed to replacing North Carolinas oldest bridges.
For now, however, the department is focusing on trying to get the one in Smithfield done as quickly as possible. We know the impact were having, and we want to expedite everything, McLamb said.