N.C. Department of Transportation work at the Taco Bell sinkhole site off U.S. 421 West in Wilkesboro is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on DOT finances.

Mike Pettyjohn, North Wilkesboro-based DOT Division 11 engineer, said Thursday that DOT officials want to advertise for bids and award a contract for installing a 55-inch storm water culvert underneath and along U.S. 421 as soon as DOT’s “cash floor” improves.

Pettyjohn said the cash floor is the department’s ending monthly balance. The state mandates that it be at least 7.5% of projected fiscal year revenues before DOT enters into new contracts or obligations.

DOT officials opened bids on March 2 for the drainage work, but the bids were 46% above an engineer’s estimate. “After reaching out to the bidders to determine the reason for the high bids, we performed geotechnical borings and revised the proposal to help eliminate unknown risk for the bidders,” said Pettyjohn.

Pettyjohn said re-advertising for bids wasn’t possible due to DOT budget shortfalls created by the pandemic.

Starting about three years ago, a section of storm water culvert installed several decades ago beneath what now is the Taco Bell parking lot and nearby collapsed, blocking storm water and leading to sinkholes in the parking lots of Taco Bell and the nearby Winkler Mill Shopping Center. The property is owned by the J.C. Faw estate.

Under an April 11, 2019, consent judgment in Wilkes Superior Court, money from the sale of parcels in the Faw estate goes to an escrow account to reimburse the town’s costs related to maintaining public safety and replacing the collapsed culvert that caused the sinkholes.

The court decision included declaring the property with sinkholes a public nuisance and gave the town authority to make the repairs. Heavy rain has occasionally caused storm water to rush across U.S. 421 and Winkler Mill Road, creating what the town has called life safety issues.

The town is recording all expenses related to the sinkholes and received its first check, for $197,269, from the Faw estate in December 2019.

Bob Urness, the Wilkesboro director of finance and assistant town manager, said earlier this month that the town had essentially completed its activities for the clean-up phase of work at the Taco Bell site. The town is billing the Faw estate for the cost of the town’s efforts to stabilize the site and for moving utility lines required to make the site safe.

“It is our understanding the estate has sufficient funds to make timely payment,” said Urness. “Additionally, the estate has liquidated enough properties to make us feel comfortable they can cover the estimated remediation costs.”

Urness said during a Wilkesboro Town Council meeting on June 15 that the town billed the Faw estate for an additional $225,000, which includes $50,000 in legal fees, $75,000 in labor costs and $100,000 in materials such as fencing, gravel and rental equipment. “The estate is okay with the bill that they have been given and I would anticipate getting payment in full by the end of the fiscal year (June 30).”

At the Taco Bell site, Wilkesboro crews have installed a new temporary culvert to reroute storm water around blocked culvert sections at the Winkler Mill Shopping Center. This captured most of the storm water and rerouted it within the fence line, allowing the remainder to continue channeling toward the north shoulder of U.S. 421.

All of the storm water flows into a catch basin near the intersection of Winkler Mill Road and U.S. 421 and courses under U.S. 421 to where it is released on the other side.

The DOT previously said the culvert work is expected to be completed no later than June 15, 2021, at an anticipated cost of more than $2.5 million. The project consists of boring and jacking to place the new culvert under U.S. 421 without damaging the highway surface.

The new section of culvert will continue along the north shoulder of U.S. 421 to a point where the Town of Wilkesboro will connect a new section of culvert for storm water and a small creek flowing beneath the Winkler Mill parking lot. 

DOT is doing the culvert work as part of the larger project of converting U.S. 421 to a "superstreet" in western Wilkesboro.

Pettyjohn said the U.S. 421 superstreet project is scheduled to be let in February 2022. DOT budget cuts led to a delay in starting the project. The long-discussed superstreet project is intended to improve safety along the U.S. 421 West business corridor by greatly reducing the number of left turns from and into commercial entrance drives.

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