Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Shelby bypass taking its time

Shelby is home to Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, a favorite location for quality smoked pig. Earl Scruggs lived here before his three-fingered banjo-playing style revolutionized bluegrass music and introduced TV watchers to the Clampett family in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The Don Gibson Theater, a downtown concert hall, pays homage to the native son who wrote country music hits such as “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Oh, Lonesome Me.”

Even with Shelby’s abundant small-town charm, out-of-towners greeting Mayor Stan Anthony mostly want to talk about the town’s troublesome traffic. “I run into people from Charlotte all the time who say, ‘I know where Shelby is. It’s that place between Charlotte and Asheville with 13 stoplights,’” he says. “Everybody complains about it, and rightfully so. It’s just a traffic jam with a lot of stoplights.”

The Shelby native and retired architect was elected mayor in 2011. Less than two years later, in 2013, Ohio-based contractor E.S. Wagner began construction on the 18.5-mile Shelby Bypass, meant to alleviate traffic on the road, which is known as Dixon Boulevard inside the city limits and U.S. 74 to those passing through.

More than a decade later, less than half (6.5 miles) of the length of the four-lane highway has been finished. In June, another 5.3-mile stretch is scheduled to open, making it about two-thirds complete.

“They’ve been talking about this road for at least 35 years,” says Anthony. “These things just take a long time.”

Work on the final 6.7 miles of the project started last year, with the expectation of having the entire route open to traffic in November 2028. Burnsville, Minnesota-based Ames Construction has the contract. It’s the same company handling site development for the 1,000-acre Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, where Toyota is investing $13.9 billion to make batteries for electric vehicles.

Now here’s the surprise: If the Shelby Bypass opens in 2028, that will be about 15 years worth of construction — and almost two years ahead of schedule. Yes, two years earlier than originally promised. Anthony says he recalls that in 2011, the N.C. Department of Transportation projected a 2030 finish date. News stories from The (Shelby) Star in 2014 backup Anthony’s memory.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” says House Speaker Tim Moore, the Kings Mountain lawyer who has held his powerful post since 2015. He blames the DOT construction process for taking so long to finish the project. “The money is there,” says Moore, the 2024 GOP nominee for a U.S. House seat in a heavily Republican-leaning district. “It’s really been a DOT issue as far as them getting the construction done.”

He adds, “Throwing more money at the project would not have helped.”

Initial construction was delayed for several years, Anthony says, as state and local governments debated whether the bypass should take a northern or southern route around Shelby. The northern route won. The state then had to buy private land, often through eminent domain, which allows the government to acquire private land for public use even if the landowner objects. Land sales via eminent domain put transactions into the court system.

The state broke the bypass project into seven different sections for funding purposes. That combined to make the project a lengthy one but not unreasonably drawn-out, says Mark Stafford, an N.C. DOT division engineer assigned to Shelby.

“Although it seems like a long time, in transportation time and the way we do projects and the way projects have to be staged for funding, a project like this would not be considered an exorbitant amount of time,” says Stafford.

Most folks in Shelby doubted the bypass would ever be built, the DOT official says. Now they see an end in sight. “It’s like most of our transportation projects. People are anxiously awaiting for them to be open,” says Stafford. “It’s been a long time coming from the early planning stages, but now obviously they know it’s coming and it’s going to be finished.”

Moore shares that optimism. “They’re moving in the right direction now,” he says.

The project’s original price tag of $194 million in 2012 is now $313 million, a roughly
70% increase. Sharp construction cost increases in recent years are to blame, the DOT says. These costs do not include preliminary engineering or right of way expenses.

No stoplights
About 40,000 vehicles travel on U.S. 74 in Shelby every day, in a stop-and-go fashion through more than a dozen stoplights. Some stoplights are at the intersection of crossroads and others to businesses ranging from a shopping mall, a Walmart, a Chick-fil-A and dozens of others.

The DOT estimates the bypass from near Interstate 85 and Kings Mountain to the east and near Mooresboro to the west will divert about three-fourths of the daily traffic away, or 30,000 vehicles a day, says Stafford. Once complete, it will allow travelers to pass through Shelby at 65 mph on a limited-access highway, with no stoplights. Exit ramps will lead to roads where businesses can locate, he notes.

Shelby has approved zoning steps, called small-area plans, to assure that the interchanges are attractive to travelers. The bypass should be an economic driver for the city, with new hotels, restaurants and industries locating near interchanges.

“We’ve done some work there to make sure we don’t have the same situation” as U.S. 74, where officials essentially let unbridled development, says Anthony. That ineffective planning has made the main thoroughfare “not the best side of Shelby,” he says. “I know it’s an aggravation for travelers. It’s a pain.”

When Cleveland County and the city of Shelby partnered on building a 108,500-square-foot speculative building to attract business, they made sure to put it close to an interchange at a  completed section of the bypass, says Brandon Ruppe, associate executive director of the county’s Economic Development Partnership.

The bypass should eventually cut the driving time from that site to the Charlotte airport by about 15 minutes, he says. The trip now takes about an hour.

“It’s definitely part of our marketing strategy for recruiting new industry,” says Ruppe. Some businesses, like a Walmart distribution center, already have located near the bypass, he adds.

For now, few people use the small completed section of the bypass because it doesn’t offer a destination, says Anthony. Once the new section opens in June, some traffic from Hickory and Burke County, north of Cleveland County, may find it beneficial. But he doesn’t think the bypass will serve much purpose until it routes traffic completely around Shelby.

Watching the bypass
Jolly Horn has a unique vantage point as the bypass emerges. Standing near the edge of her 48-acre farm, she sees where the new section will open in June. When Horn looks west, she sees a few vehicles using the bypass, and points to a car traveling under an overpass to show where her home once stood.

Horn’s home, built in the 1830s, was bought by the state in
2007 via eminent domain. It’s about a mile north of U.S. 74, close enough to town to hear the sounds of Friday night football at Shelby High School.

The state also bought the homes of her parents, and aunts and uncles, and then tore them down to make way for the bypass.

“This highway took all of our homes. This is what’s left of our land,” she says. Construction on the bypass cut off Horn’s access for about 10 years to the farm where her late parents and grandparents once grew cotton and soybeans and raised cattle. A few years ago, the state added an approximate quarter-mile frontage road — Winding River Way — that leads just to her property, which includes the First Broad River.

Horn now works as a massage therapist in Shelby, where she rents a home. She doesn’t quarrel with the price paid by the state for her home, she says. She hopes the bypass will bring travelers past the family farm, which she and her adult son, Coleman Putnam, are planning to turn into an agritourism site with flowers, pecan trees, chickens and glamping sites.

“We’re just fourth- and fifth-generation farmers trying to keep the family farm,” says Horn. “It’s open land and everything’s being developed around it.”

She hopes to open her new business, Winding River Farmstead, this month. She’s already met with a prospective home builder and will eventually move onto the property.

“We want to share this beautiful land. What’s left of it,” she says. Some glamping sites will be placed near the banks of the First Broad River, and she foresees a live music venue with beer and wine offered. And some massage therapy.

“It’s going to be a whole scene,” she says.

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