Paving underway on the Foothills Parkway

Workers pave a section of Foothills Parkway on Nov. 9, 2017. Early completion of paving the “missing link” will allow the public to drive the road straight through from Walland to Wears Valley for the first time on Veterans Day weekend, weather permitting.

The long-awaited “missing link” of the Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley is set to open to the public on Veterans Day weekend.

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 the National Park Service.

After various failed construction attempts since the 1980s, the 1.65-mile stretch of road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is set to be functional and accessible to the public the weekend of Nov. 10, weather permitting.

“It would be great if we’re able to open for people to enjoy on the long weekend,” GSMNP spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. “We’re really excited to have this project ready for use.”

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, the 1.65-mile gap was left unfinished when the project was halted due to slope failure and erosion during construction.

Once the paving 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.

Although construction on the “missing link” resumed in 1999, progress was slow going until the project got a boost in 2009 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The “missing link” of the 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.

It took Lane Construction Co., of Charlotte, N.C., seven years and $48.5 million to design and build the remaining five bridges that completed the “missing link” — Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Innovative construction techniques allowed this latest mountainside footprint of the Foothills Parkway to not extend beyond 10 feet of the roadway itself. Designers were cognizant of the need to be respectful of park topography and appreciative of wildlife, which lets migrating animals travel under the bridges, according to officials overseeing the “missing link” project.

On March 13, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., that would name “Bridge 2” of the new section of the parkway as the Dean Stone Bridge. The measure recognizes Stone, longtime editor of The Daily Times who died in October 2016, for his decades-long support of the project.

Duncan said when introducing the legislation that “Dean Stone was one of the park’s strongest advocates for many, many years, and there was no stronger supporter of completing the parkway than him.”

Since 1966, the federal government has invested close to $180 million on the 16-mile segment from Walland to Wears Valley, according to the park service.

While Knoxville-based Harrison Construction is contracted to finish the paving by Dec. 22, the Veterans Day completion would be a welcome extra-early Christmas present for Blount Countians and others appreciative of the natural beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In addition to convenience for area residents, the much-anticipated stretch of scenic vistas will likely boost tourism in Blount County.

Tourists in the county spent $357 million in 2017 — an increase of $11 million from the previous year — ranking the county eighth in the state for visitor spending.

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