Newfound Gap Road reopens
Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopened at 10 a.m. Monday, a month ahead of the May 15 contract deadline.
The road had been closed since Jan. 16, after a landslide took out a 200-foot portion of the roadway six miles below Newfound Gap on the North Carolina side. The Phase 2 construction contractor, Phillips & Jordan, Inc., began working Feb. 22 and completed the job in less than three months, at times working around the clock.
The $4 million contract included a monetary incentive of $18,000 per day for each day completed ahead of schedule, up to $500,000. It also included an equivalent disincentive for each extra work day past deadline.
For finishing a month early, the contractor will receive the full $500,000 bonus, paid jointly by the National Park Service and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“Newfound Gap Road is the primary artery of this national park,” Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said at a media event announcing the road's opening Monday morning. “People do make decisions about where to travel when they hear a road is closed. So, we do know how important this is to our local economy.”
A park press release gave comparative figures for visitation during March 2012 and March 2013. A total of 465,594 visitors came to the park last month, compared to 611,326 in March 2012 — a decrease of 145,732 visitors, or about 24 percent.
The release also stated that this has been the lowest visitation for January through March in over five years.
In terms of financial value, Ditmanson estimated that the road, which connects Gatlinburg to Cherokee, N.C., means over $150,000 per day to the local economy in January alone.
"You can only imagine what that would have been during that Easter time period had this road been open," Ditmanson said. "So that incentive, while it sounds like an extraordinary piece of money to get this project done, there will be payment to our local communities."
Eastern Band Principal Chief Michell Hicks estimated that the road closure would impact the Cherokee economy by at least $1 million.
"I can't even imagine Bryson City, Sylva and some of these other guys," Hicks said. "It's a significant effect.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Glennville, spoke at Monday's event before the announcement, commenting on the efficiency and hard work of all those involved with reopening the road in time for the peak tourism season.
"Less than 90 days ago, a good number of us stood just to my left ... where we saw this unbelievable hole in the ground, and so the original estimates were much greater in terms of getting this road open," said Meadows, who was sworn in days after the landslide. "Whenever you can get this kind of project done in less than 90 days ... truly my hat's off.
"If we hadn't done the job that was done here, we would have had businesses closing, people hurting, and once again, an economy suffering. So because all of this worked out together, we can have hopefully people that don't have to worry quite as much. And we're getting it open right before the season starts, so thank you all."
The Phase 1 contractor, APAC Harrison Division, developed the access road to the slide area, removed debris and stabilized the slope above the work area, finishing the $800,000 job on Feb. 21.
Phillips & Jordan mobilized the next day for Phase 2, which focused on filling in the gap with crushed stone and rebuilding the roadway. Emmett Melton, Federal Highways Administration construction operations engineer, estimated that somewhere between 2,500-3,000 dumptruck loads of material were used to fill the gap.
A drainage system was also constructed to help prevent subsurface water flow from causing a slide like this in the future.
Melton said minor reseeding and cleanup still needs to be done, but the rest of the project is completely finished, and the road is open to the public.
"We're essentially done," Melton said.