Asheville Watchdog: NCDOT Awards $1.1 Billion Contract for Main I-26 Connector Sections

A rendering of a highway.
NCDOT

Written by John Boyle, Asheville Watchdog.

After nearly four decades of planning and discussions, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has a contractor for the two main sections of the I-26 Connector.

Archer Wright Joint Venture, which bid $1.15 billion, will build the two main sections of the massive I-26 Connector project, which the NCDOT calls Section B and Section D, according to an NCDOT news release. The two sections, which the NCDOT collectively calls “the north section,” will involve new bridges over the French Broad River and new sections to connect Interstate 26 above and below Asheville, as well as improvements to Riverside Drive.

Construction could begin this year on both sections, according to the State Transportation Improvement Program, the NCDOT’s long-range planning tool, but the Connector project has been planned and discussed since 1989. In short, nothing happens quickly with the project.

As NCDOT buys land for I-26 Connector, negotiation can pay off for property owners, Watchdog analysis shows

In the release, the NCDOT said the “design-build contract for the planning, design, and construction of the northern section of the I-26 Asheville Connector following decades of planning, discussion, design, public input and official proclamations” will go to Archer-Wright Joint Venture. The company is a partnership between Archer Western Construction and Wright Brothers Construction Company, with lead engineering from the firm RK&K.

“The Archer-Wright Joint Venture will be responsible for constructing a new network that stretches from Haywood Road across the French Broad River to U.S. 19/23/70 by Broadway Street, and Riverside Drive from Hill Street to Broadway Street,” the release states. “Over the next six months, NCDOT and Archer-Wright JV will work on designs to optimize the construction plan and reduce the cost for the project.”

The part of the I-26 Connector also will “transform vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian access to and through downtown Asheville,” the release notes, as it will remove interstate traffic from the Capt. Jeff Bowen bridges leading in and out of downtown.

The Bowen bridges now carry I-26 and I-240 across the French Broad River just west of downtown, and it does not meet interstate design standards, the NCDOT said.

The new construction will put I-26 and I-240 traffic on a new bridge across the French Broad River that does meet interstate standards, and that will allow the Bowen bridges to serve local traffic. The Bowen bridges also will provide pedestrian and bicycle access to and from downtown.

The NCDOT said, “These aspects of the project will be retained as the project is refined.” City leaders and activists fought for the pedestrian and bicycle access.

“The main features in this north section of the connector will be a new interchange at Patton Avenue, a new bridge over the French Broad River and a new bridge at Broadway Street,” Nathan Moneyham, NCDOT Division 13 Construction Engineer, said in the release. “These improvements will address numerous operational issues we all experience when it comes to safety and congestion in this area.”

Right of way work and land acquisition has already begun on other sections of the I-26 Connector project. As of May 9, the NCDOT has made 142 offers on the project, settled 75 cases, and condemned eight properties, according to Tony Rickman, right of way agent for Division 13, which includes Buncombe County.

The 7-mile I-26 Connector project consists of five sections — Sections B and D, and these three additional sections:

  • Section AA/AB — Upgrades to I-240, as well as to interchanges at Brevard and Amboy roads, from the I-26/I-240 interchange with I-40 to Haywood Road.
  • Section AC — Includes initial improvements at the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange, and along I-40 between the interchange and U.S. 19/23 (Smokey Park Highway).
  • Section C — Improvements to the I-40 interchanges with Smokey Park Highway, I-26/I-240, and Brevard Road.

Archer Wright also is the contractor on the ongoing I-26 widening project in Henderson County. Another contractor is doing the widening project on the Buncombe County portion of I-26.

The Connector project has gone through multiple iterations and delays during its 35-year history, and the contract bidding process also carried some drama with it. In February, all three initial bids came in “not within the acceptable range of the NCDOT’s engineer’s estimate,” according to an NCDOT spokesperson. The department then requested the final and best offers, which were opened May 7 during a video livestream.

All three bids again exceeded the “engineer’s estimate” of the cost of the two main Connector sections — $1.06 billion — but Archer Wright’s “adjusted price” came in under that threshold, at $846.1 million.

These were the bids that were opened May 7:

  • Archer Wright Joint Venture — Price proposal: $1.15 billion. Adjusted price: $846.1 million. Technical score: 92.5.
  • Balfour Beatty Infrastructure — Price proposal: $1.34 billion. Adjusted price: $1.1 billion. Technical score: 85.0.
  • Flatiron-United-BDC Joint Venture — Price proposal $1.76 billion. Adjusted price: $1.27 billion. Technical score of 94.0.

As part of the new bids opening last week, the contractors had to submit plans for an “Optimization and Refinement” process that the NCDOT says allows “for significant cost reduction after the award of the project. This addition was not expected to lower the initial bids for the project.”

The six-month long Optimization and Refinement process will allow NCDOT and Archer-Wright to “collaboratively find scope reductions, construction efficiencies and innovations that retain the necessary functions of the project while bringing the cost more in line with planned estimates,” the release states. “NCDOT will work with and compensate the design-build team during the O&R period as both parties work to mitigate risks and create a more efficient and optimally priced project.”

Once this period concludes, “a new contract amount will be agreed upon and work on the final design and construction of the project can begin. In the event that enough cost reductions are not identified, the contract may be terminated, and a new procurement process will be determined,” the release states.

The NCDOT has a complex formula to arrive at the adjusted price, considering the “quality of the proposal to produce a technical score, which along with the bid price is used to develop an adjusted price,” NCDOT spokesperson Aaron Moody said previously via email. “The adjusted price is used only for the purpose of determining the low bidder – it is not an actual adjustment to the bid. The contractor with the lowest adjusted price will be awarded the contract.”

The state’s Transportation Improvement Plan says construction could start this year on Sections B and D, and right of way work and land acquisition has already begun on other sections. As of May 9, the NCDOT had made 142 offers on the project, settled 75 cases, and condemned eight properties, according to Tony Rickman, right of way agent for Division 13, which includes Buncombe County.

Archer Western, established in 1983, has its corporate office in Atlanta, and it operates seven regional offices. The contractor primarily operates in the southern and western regions of the United States.

Wright Brothers, based out of Charleston, Tennessee, dates to 1961. It is one of the largest civil contractors in the Southeast. It has more than 400 employees and 500 pieces of construction equipment.

RK&K was founded in 1923. The company provides multi-discipline planning, engineering, environmental, and construction phase services. RK&K has offices located throughout the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and South Central United States.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at [email protected]. The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service please visit avlwatchdog.org/donate.