An early April rock slide on Old Walland Highway has turned into a project for Blount County Highway Department at a potential cost of $300,000 to $400,000 with a time frame of another three to four weeks.
The road closed April 8 and Blount County Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick told The Daily Times then he didn’t know how long it would be closed.
At that point officials were consulting with third-party engineers to see how unstable the mountainside had become after heavy rains days before.
But Headrick told The Daily Times by phone Monday that repairs are going well, though they’ll take almost a month to wrap up.
He said that was a cautious estimation.
Engineers found the landscape at the slide was so unstable it required netting stabilization. Though netting may be hung this week, that’s only one step in the project, Headrick said.
Blount crews had to haul dirt in and build the road up so that netting crews could reach the top of the slide area. They’ve also helped with tree-clearing and generally have worked to monitor the situation.
“We’ll start taking that dirt back out, reestablish some ditch lines, clean the asphalt that’s there, it’s probably damaged, overlay it, stripe it, put a guardrail up, and then we’re done,” Headrick said.
He said he knew at first glance the slide risk wasn’t going to be easy to mitigate. It was a sudden need but it also hit Blount’s pocketbook hard.
He didn’t give an exact price for this project, but he said similar ones cost between $300,000 and $400,000.
“It hurts,” Headrick said. “You get that phone call on a Monday morning that the mountain’s slid off..”
April’s rock slide — between block numbers 6339 and 6547 — may not be the only potentially dangerous area on Old Walland Highway, Headrick said, but budgeting for the 2021-22 fiscal year is nearly over and there aren’t funds to address those needs specifically at the moment.
“Our county engineers looked all up and down that road and, yes, we’ve identified some other areas where this could happen,” he explained. “We hope it doesn’t. However, we were already so far into the budget I was unable to allocate (future) money just for potential rock-slide remediations.”
Thankfully, he added, the department was “frugal enough” during this budget year to be able to absorb the $300,000-$400,000 cost.
In coming years, he said it will be “prudent” to add potential slide mitigation to the budget, noting citizens, visitors and bikers are all top priorities for this project.
The winding road is a more residential, scenic route to Townsend and is especially popular with cyclists, Headrick said.
He’s emphasized in past interviews a concern for the “health, safety and welfare” of Blount Countians is what drives projects like this one.
“I checked every one of those boxes,” he said Monday.
Major and minor rockslides happen every year in the mountains. They are dangerous and caused one fatality in Townsend early last year. Sliding rocks and earth can bring trees and other debris with them.
Crews have to assess all this as they seek to secure steep landscape beside local roads and paths, especially after heavy rains.