Park Services hopes to complete Foothills Parkway ‘missing link’ by 2016
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
High on a ridgeline in Great Smoky Mountains National park near Wears Valley, a giant walks.
Nothing from mythology, this giant is actually a huge gantry crane used to transport sections of the 790-foot-long bridge being built on the Wears Valley side of the 1.65 mile “missing link” of the Foothills Parkway.
“The gantry crane actually walks on four big feet — one pair of feet advances, the weight shifts, and then another pair advances,” said Park spokesman Bob Miller. “It carries these precast road sections, each is 37 feet wide, 9 feet in height, and an average of 8 feet in length, and it takes those out over the completed section of the bridge and sets the next one in place.”
Bridge 2, as it is designated, is about 85 percent complete. The project received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding in late 2009. It is expected to be completed by Aug. 5.
“They are working their way out from the Wears Valley end towards Walland,” Miller said. “At the same time there is work to pour the abutment on the west end of that project.”
Congress authorized the Foothills Parkway on Feb. 22, 1944. The entire 72-mile corridor is administered by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, only three segments totaling 22.5 miles are completed and open to the public.
Between 1966 and 1970, a 6.4-mile section of road between U.S. Highway 321 in Walland and Carr Creek was constructed. In the 1980s, two contracts were awarded for construction of about 10 miles of road between Carr Creek and Wears Valley (Section 8E). Both projects experienced structural fill failures and erosion problems that caused the projects to be suspended in 1989, thus leaving a 1.65-mile segment uncompleted. The uncompleted section is referred to as the “missing link.”
Most recently, the remaining sections of the “missing link” were grouped in an attempt to complete construction by 2016. Bridges 3, 5, 6, 7, and the Caylor Gap road segment have been funded. The total construction award is $41.1 million.
The National Park Service hopes the missing link can be completed by 2016, Miller said.
“Because it’s been under way since the 1960s, we think it’s high time, but a lot of pieces have to drop in place. It will be close to try to get that done by 2016.”
Swarming around the crane are the relatively minuscule figures of the workers who toil on the bridge. Some hang off the side of the cliff as they build forms to hold concrete for the sidewalls of a bridge abutment.
“That’s the kind of job this is — walking the high steel,” Miller said.
The pieces of bridge are strung together with cables that are put under high tension, Miller said. “That’s what holds the bridge together. It’s like beads on the string.”
Once the remaining bridges and stretches of roadway under contract are completed, the National Park Service will still be about $36.5 million short of crossing the finish line for the project. This includes $7.5 million for the construction of Bridge 4 and $29 million for paving and miscellaneous work to open the entire 16 miles from Wears Valley to Walland.
There are deadlines that must be met in order to ensure the missing link opens by 2016. The contract option for Bridge 4, which is part of the existing construction contract, can be exercised no later than June 30. Funds to award Bridge 4 would need to be made available prior to that time and funds for the 16-mile paving project need to be made available beginning no later than the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2013, Miller said. Will that happen?
“There is no telling,” Miller said. “As you may know, the federal highways bill is up for reauthorization. There is only a temporary reauthorization that has passed Congress. We probably won’t know until June if that last phase is going to be funded in this bill or not.”
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander supports funding to complete construction of the missing link, according to his office.
One million visitors
The completed sections of the Foothills Parkway are already great draws for visitors to the Park, Miller said. Between them, the Foothills Parkway East and Foothills Parkway West drew more than 1 million visitors in 2011.
“There are only a handful of sites in the National Park system that have more than 1 million people,” Miller said. “It’s a lot of folks.”
The Foothills Parkway offers some of the best views in the park. “(It) offers really, really sweeping views, 180 degrees from horizon to horizon, of the main body of the park,” Miller said.
It also bring in tourism money to communities situated along it.
“Those million or so folks are bringing in money,” Miller said. “It’s an economic driver for the communities that are strung out along it like Cosby and Walland and certainly Townsend and Maryville.”