NCDOT to Widen, Raise I-95 Through Lumberton to Prevent Floods

Thu October 21, 2021 - Southeast Edition
Raleigh News & Observer

Torrential rain from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 sent the Lumber River over its banks onto Interstate 95 in Lumberton, N.C., closing the East Coast's main north-south highway for several days.

Just two years later, it happened again after Hurricane Florence.

Now the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is moving to both widen I-95 through Lumberton and raise it up high enough that engineers hope it will not get inundated with flood waters again.

NCDOT signed a $432 million contract earlier in October to rebuild 8 mi. of I-95 through Robeson County's largest city, starting next summer. The construction will get under way after final design work and be completed by the late summer of 2026. It will include five interchanges, many of which will eventually be surrounded by hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

The design-build contract went to the Morrisville, N.C.-based joint venture of Flatiron Constructors Inc. and Charlotte's United Infrastructure Group Inc. Together, they will widen the highway from four lanes to eight and replace bridges at three interchanges with wider and longer ones.

They also will build a new, higher bridge to carry I-95 over the Lumber River, where flood waters left the interstate impassable for several days after both hurricanes, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

"This modernization is long overdue," Grady Hunt, an NCDOT board member who lives in Robeson County, said in a statement. "This vital corridor needs to be widened, but also upgraded to be more resilient against future hurricanes."

Contractors will use fill dirt to raise the interstate anywhere from 1.5 to 10 ft. above its current elevation through Lumberton, according to Matt Lauffer, NCDOT's hydraulics design engineer. The goal, he told the News & Observer, is to raise all bridges and culverts high enough to handle a 100-year flood, plus provide a foot-and-a-half cushion so floating logs and debris can pass underneath.

The state agency considers a 100-year flood to be one that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year.

More Storms Lead to I-95 Fixes

The changes in Lumberton are part of a broader effort to try to flood-proof I-95 as the road is widened in stages between Johnston County, to the north, and the South Carolina line.

Contractors who are already widening a 26-mi. stretch of I-95, from I-40 south to near Fayetteville, also are raising the freeway or replacing culverts with bridges to try to prevent future flooding, particularly where the roadway crosses the Black River in Harnett County.

The fixes come out of a study commissioned by then-Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon following Hurricane Florence to determine how to keep both I-95 and I-40 from flooding after catastrophic storms, the News & Observer reported. Both Matthew and Florence rivaled Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which caused historic flooding that people never expected to see again, but which seem to be coming more frequently.

NCDOT estimates that the extra efforts to prevent I-95 flooding will add about 11 percent to the cost of widening the freeway, though the exact cost will vary by segment. So far, the state has signed contracts worth about $1.1 billion to widen 34 mi.

The extra expense should pay off overall, though, according to Lauffer. National research on disaster damage and federal government spending suggests that every $1 spent preparing for floods and other calamities will save $4 to $6 in future repairs and reconstruction, he told the Raleigh newspaper.

The transportation department expects to award two more contracts to widen another 15 mi. of the interstate between Lumberton and Fayetteville, starting next fall, which are expected to be worth about $300 million.

When that project is completed, also in 2026, a total of 49 mi., or about a quarter of the 182-mi. length of I-95 in North Carolina, will be expanded to eight lanes. The interstate runs entirely though the eastern half of the state.

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