Funds for the N.C. Department of Transportation’s installation of a new section of storm water culvert underneath and along U.S. 421 West near Winkler Mill Road in Wilkesboro were released last week, said Town Manager Ken Noland.

Noland said the DOT started advertising the culvert project for bids on Monday and will accept them until March 2. He said work is expected between April 1, 2020, and June 15, 2021.

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 nearby Winkler Mill Shopping Center.

Mike Pettyjohn, North Wilkesboro-based DOT 11 Division engineer, said the DOT project will consist of boring and jacking to place the new 66-inch culvert under U.S. 421 without damaging the highway surface. He said it will take several months to install such a large culvert under U.S. 421.

Pettyjohn said the new section of culvert installed by DOT 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.

Because the project is being advertised for bids, Pettyjohn said he couldn’t estimate a budget for the project, “but it will be higher than initially discussed.” He and Wilkesboro officials earlier said DOT might spend around $1 million and the town $1 million-$1.5 million.

Noland said Wednesday that Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore made a phone call last week to Cullie Tarleton, DOT Division 11 board member. Inscore, said Noland, “stressed the pressure we’re under and the significant need we have to fixing this life-safety issue.” Within a day, Inscore got a call back saying the money had been released for the culvert project.

“We appreciate the mayor, on a political level, making that call so that those in power knew the importance of the project,” said Noland.

Noland said he expects work to begin very soon after the selected contractor signs a contract in early April. “The contract period is a little over a year, but we’re hoping it can be done within a six-month window.”

Wilkesboro will seek bids for its portion of the work six to eight weeks before the state’s work is finished, said Noland. “Our work can’t be bid until we know where (the state’s culvert) ends up. They have a plan, but if they get into unknown, the whole scope of where we start could change, and we’d be wasting a lot of money.”

Noland said town staff started rerouting storm water around a newly-discovered blocked culvert on property in the Winkler Mill Shopping Center on Feb. 3 and are continuing this work. “We’re doing some temporary work, putting in some pipe work to manage the water flow. We’re going to reroute the majority of that water within the fence line and capture 75% of the flow. What’s left will run like it does now toward the shoulder of the highway.”

The town is recording all expenses related to the sinkholes, which are on property owned by the J.C. Faw estate. The town received a $197,269 check from the Faw estate in December, the first since the sinkholes started appearing three years ago.

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.

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