Foothills Parkway’s infamous “missing link” is no longer missing.
A 1.65-mile gap in the Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley was bridged — literally — with the completion of five bridges six weeks ago, Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced Thursday in a brief ceremony on the section of roadway commonly referred to as the “missing link.”
“This is a milestone moment for us,” said Great Smoky Mountains National Park Acting Deputy Superintendent Alan Sumeriski. “All bridges are finished ... and we now can drive the entire section from Walland to Wears Valley.”
The Foothills Parkway was authorized by Congress on Feb. 22, 1944. However, only three of eight segments — totaling 22.5 miles of a 72-mile corridor — are completed and open to the public, according to a National Park Service fact sheet.
Construction of the 16-mile segment between Walland in Blount County and Wears Valley in Sevier County began in 1966. While most of the roadway was completed by 1989, a 1.65-mile gap was left unfinished when the project came to a halt due to slope failure and erosion during construction.
“You couldn’t get from point A to point B,” said Federal Highway Administration’s Eastern Federal Lands Division Engineer Melisa Ridenour. “You were stuck.”
Although construction on the “missing link” resumed in 1999, progress was slow going until the project got a boost in 2009 with President Barack Obama’s signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said project manager Mike Tomkosky of the National Park Service, who has been working on the “missing link” since 2002.
“That was the shot of adrenaline we needed to complete the ‘missing link,’” he said.
It took Lane Construction Company of Charlotte, NC, seven years and $48.5 million to design and build the five bridges that complete the 1.65-mile “missing link.”
“The missing link is no more,” said Great Smoky Mountains National Park Acting Superintendent Clayton Jordan.
The “missing link” of the Foothills Parkway includes 10 bridges, which are numbered east to west. Bridges 9, 10, 8 and 2 were completed, in that order, between 1999 and 2013, as was Site 1, which ended up not having to be a bridge.
Lane Construction has been working on the remaining five bridges — Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 — since 2010. Bridge 7 was the last completed.
“That’s seven years on a little less than a mile on a two-lane roadway,” said Lane Construction Corporation District Manager Tom Meador. “How could it take that long?”
The challenge, Ridenour said, was to “make sure the roadways lay lightly on the land.”
“There was a lot of innovation used on this project, from the funding to the contracting to the actual construction,” she said.
“Top-down construction was respectful of the terrain and topography; wildlife is able to migrate under these bridges,” he said. “Lane (Construction) has been up here for seven years because of the way we asked them to do this.”
Bridging the “missing link” was difficult for several reasons, Tomkosky explained.
“You are building a road on the side of a mountain,” he said. “We tried to limit our footprint and effect on the natural resources by building from the top down, but that adds to the cost, complexity and difficulty.”
The pay-off is that the footprint of the Foothills Parkway does not extend beyond 10 feet of the roadway itself, Tomkosky noted.
“The federal government has invested almost $180 million in this 16-mile section of the Foothills Parkway since 1966,” he said. “You should feel like you are driving along the treetops or above the clouds.”
Lane Construction completed the five remaining bridges six weeks ago, Tomkosky said, but the bridges could not be driven on for six weeks due to the final overlay of high-performance concrete.
While the surface of the bridges is final, the “missing link” is not yet open to the public as paving of the road itself is underway.
“The contractor (APAC-Harrison) has until Dec. 22, 2018,” to finish the paving, Tomkosky said, though National Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said the “missing link” should open to the public by the end of 2018.
Once the paving of the 16-mile stretch from Walland to Wears Valley is finished, drivers will be able to travel 33 miles of the Foothills Parkway continuously, as the 17-mile stretch between Chilhowee Lake and Walland was completed in 1968.
While a traffic study will be conducted to determine appropriate speed limits, Tomkosky said he expects the speed limit on the “missing link” to be 25 miles per hour on the bridges and 35 miles per hour on the approaches.
“This is a steep road, at an 8-percent grade,” he said. “It’s just a tight mountain road.”
No commercial traffic will be allowed on the Foothills Parkway, Soehn said. Even so, Tomkosky said the National Park Service is expecting between 2,500 and 3,000 drivers per day, a number that could increase if the long-planned Pellissippi Parkway Extension to U.S. 321 is completed.
“I think it will be very popular with motorcyclists,” added project specialist Herb Kupfer with the National Park Service, who has been working on the “missing link” for eight years.
Officials expect the completion of Sections E and F to provide some economic benefit to the Walland and Wears Valley communities where drivers enter and exit the Foothills Parkway as well.
“There will be nowhere (on the Foothills Parkway) to go to the bathroom, buy drinks, buy gas,” Soehn said.
There will, however, be parking areas along the 16-mile stretch, Tomkosky said, so that drivers can take in the views. The first contract has been awarded to establish and maintain the vistas, he added.
“One thing we’re really excited about is having the public come up and see the scenic views we’ve had while building these bridges,” Meador said.
Meador noted that Lane Construction completed the “missing link” without any significant injuries and that most of Lane Construction’s 250 employees and subcontractors who worked on the “missing link” since 2010 were local.
“In the future, they can bring their kids and grandchildren up here and say, ‘I was a part of this engineering marvel,’” he said. “It really is an engineering marvel.”
Meador laughed Thursday about how many people would see him in his Lane Construction hat over the past seven years and remark that the “missing link” would never be finished.
“I don’t know how many times I heard that, but it’s done,” he said. “The ‘missing link’ is bridged. And we are excited now to get to share it.”