By Dave Russell
The N.C. Department of Transportation is no different from the rest of the world, in that the agency feels the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It might affect R-5600, the project to reshape U.S. Business 23/N.C. 107 in Sylva, Division 14 Engineer Brian Burch said.
R-5600 is the DOT proposal for Sylva’s commercial corridor, N.C. 107, including the elimination of the center turn lane with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane. Upgrades are slated for the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business intersection, and from U.S. 23 Business to Dillardtown Road and Municipal Drive, near the Sylva Fire Department. DOT’s preliminary estimate lists 55 businesses facing potential relocation or impact, though that number is fluid.
Burch said he does not yet know if the COVID-19 pandemic would impact R-5600, but said it could.
“It was scheduled for the N.C. Build Bond and that sell was coming up in the next couple of months,” he said.
Vehicle miles traveled are lower as travel is restricted and closed businesses mean fewer commuters.
“I’ve heard anywhere from a 20 to 40 percent reduction in vehicles on the road,” he said Friday, before Gov. Roy Cooper issued a 5 p.m. Monday stay-home order. “Obviously that is going to affect the fuel tax and what we take in as far as revenues. We’ll have to look at that as far as impacts to delivery of our programs. The State Transportation Improvement Plan is one of those programs and R-5600 is part of that.”
The project is one of about eight or nine other bond projects DOT had either scheduled for right of way or construction this season that could be impacted, he said.
Property appraisals for R-5600 are still coming in, he said.
“We’ve really not been making many offers here lately because we are trying to limit our face-to-face meetings,” he said. “With the social distancing we’ve been asked to do, it’s hard to sit down and go over an appraisal with someone and not get within 6 feet of them. We can make offers over the phone, though we prefer to do them face-to-face.”
DOT offices are only allowing visitors by appointment, and even then they are by video or conference call, he said. The DOT has a long history of internal conference calls and virtual meetings, but not with the public.
“It has required us to be creative and still provide the essential services that we do for North Carolina and the people we serve,” he said. “Most, if not all, of our office personnel – engineers, project managers and some of our supervisors – have all been teleworking for the last week or week and a half, including myself.”
Maintenance personnel out working on the roads cannot telework, he said.
“We’ve had to implement some strategies to keep those employees where they can work and implement the guidelines we’ve been given about social distancing,” he said.