Construction of the Smithfield Crossings road project is supposed to wrap up on Tuesday.
Then again, motorists have heard forecasts for the road’s completion many times before.
The project aims to ease traffic congestion by widening the exit ramp from Interstate 95 into Smithfield, adding a traffic circle on Industrial Park Drive and creating a new road that snakes behind Cici’s Pizza, Ruby Tuesday and Zaxby’s before emptying onto Market Street at the Hess gas station.
“We’ve been trying to finish this last little bit since Christmas, and until they got the paving down two weeks ago, we’d had no more than four consecutive days without subfreezing weather or without rain,” said Paul Embler, Smithfield’s planning director.
If the weather stays dry, the new road will fully open Tuesday, May 13.
The project has dragged on and on.
In 2005, town leaders acknowledged the need to address congestion on Industrial Park Drive, Embler said. Especially during the holiday shopping season, traffic would fill Industrial Park Drive and back up on the I-95 ramp and East Market Street.
The town’s original idea was essentially two roads – one that would funnel Industrial Park Drive traffic through a traffic circle and another that would dump some traffic onto Venture Drive, passing in front on Smithfield Cinemas along the way.
That idea fell through when a federal loan didn’t materialize and negotiations with landowners went nowhere.
So Smithfield narrowed the scope, abandoning the road to Venture Drive, and awarded two contracts in May of 2011 to PLT Construction and S.T. Wooten Corp. Those contracts called for construction to wrap up in late summer 2012. Eighteen months past that deadline, the work continues.
Every construction project has hiccups, Embler said. “This situation was abnormal because of the number of them,” he said. “You expect it. We even make allowances for it. ... But this was just beyond belief.”
What went wrong
Road projects need dry weather and temperatures above 40 degrees. Embler said Smithfield Crossings suffered rain, long winters and, most recently, snow and ice.
Another roadblock was Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the northeastern United States in October of 2012. During construction of Smithfield Crossings, utility companies such as CenturyLink and Duke Progress Energy had to move utility lines. Once Sandy hit, some of those companies had to focus all of their attention on disaster recovery, moving their employees out of smaller jobs such as the Smithfield project. One company, Embler said, didn’t come back to Smithfield to move its lines for six months.
Then 2013 brought one of the rainiest years in recent memory, and more problems crept up with utility lines: Construction crews kept running into unmarked lines that had to be moved or built around, Embler said.
The cost to build
Embler won’t know the project’s final cost until contractors submit their last bills, but he expects the work to come in close to its $6 million budget. The many delays won’t add to the cost, but additional materials could, he said.
The town received about $500,000 from a local developer for the project, about $750,000 from the N.C. Department of Transportation and roughly $1 million from the Federal Highway Administration. The town borrowed the remaining $3.5 million.
Not everyone is happy
Business owners around the construction have been complaining for years about the toll on their sales.
Richard Nunez owns El Sombrero, a restaurant a few hundred feet north of the new traffic circle. He said fewer people are using Industrial Park Drive, and his business has decreased by more than 30 percent since construction started. “It’s crazy, it’s been so long,” he said.
Patrick Odom is an assistant manager at Ruby Tuesday, which is near the traffic circle. Before that, he worked at Texas Steakhouse across the street.
Odom said construction had hurt sales at both restaurants. “Our regular snowbirds who travel up and down 95 all the time couldn't figure out how to get back to these restaurants,” he said.
Sales at Ruby Tuesday are up by about 3 percent this year, but Odom said he suspected the restaurant would have seen an increase of 5 to 10 percent if not for the construction.
The ongoing project came up again at last Tuesday’s town council meeting. Councilman Travis Scott said the road seems worse than it was before.
Embler said the changes will improve congestion but just take time for people to learn. As people get used to the traffic circle, they’ll find it easier to navigate, he said.
Embler said the town opted for a traffic circle because it will let more people through per minute than a stoplight. The new road also has more turn lanes dumping onto Market Street, which should keep Industrial Park Drive from backing up, he said,