"Traffic alert as been issued on I-75..." screeched on the Tennessee radio network Friday afternoon. "I-75 southbound is closed by mile marker 160."
It was a message Kentucky resident Jimmy Estes didn't hear as he was heading to Pigeon Forge Friday afternoon.
"At first we thought it was a crash," he said after being stuck in traffic for hours on I-75 southbound. He, like thousands of other drivers were getting off Exit 160, in Jellico, because the interstate was closed for about 20 miles.
The culprit: an earthslide near an embankment on mile-marker 143. A part of the interstate was sliding down the 50+ foot embankment, forcing that stretch of roadway to close.
"What we had to do, for safety reasons, is take the traffic off the southbound lanes. We're currently detouring them off our state routes," said TDOT's Steve Borden.
Two routes have been recommended for drivers who need to go south on I-75, and avoid the construction.
- Most drivers will have to take Exit 160 in Jellico and follow U.S. 25W to LaFollette and back to I-75 South at Exit 134 in Caryville- 10News clocked that commute at 1 hour and 10 minutes.
- Wide loads will have to exit off I-75 south at exit 160 in Jellico and turn right and follow state route 297 west to state route 63 and back onto I-75 south at Exit 141- 10News timed that at 44 minutes.
- (Note: this was an unscientific study, where traffic varied at certain locations)
Normally, it takes about 20 minutes for that same commute if the interstate was open.
TDOT said future plans are already in the works on improving that travel time for drivers.
"We're in the process right now to building crossovers of anticipation of next week of putting the southbound lanes on the northbound side... putting one southbound lane and two northbound lanes on that one side," Borden added.
That partial reopening of I-75 Southbound could reopen by next week's end, depending on weather conditions TDOT stressed.
Meanwhile- if there is any silver lining, driver Jimmy Estes said, at least the northbound lanes are not affected.
"It could be smooth sailing on the way home," Estes smiled.
As for a timetable on when I-75 Southbound will fully reopen, Borden said it could be weeks even longer before they can properly stabilize that stretch of roadway.
Update 5:30 p.m.
TDOT says they will be constructing crossovers near the affected parts of I-75.
They say once the crossovers are in place, there will be one lane of traffic open through I-75 southbound and two lanes open northbound.
TDOT hopes the crossovers will be constructed and open by the end of next week.
Southbound lanes of Interstate 75 are closed at the Jellico exit.
That's because, more than 15 miles to the south, a section of embankment next to I-75 collapsed just past the Stinking Creek exit Thursday.
"TDOT geotechnical engineers were on site again this morning," spokesperson Mark Nagi said in a news release Friday afternoon. "It has been determined that both lanes on I-75 south must be closed in order to stabilize the area."
TDOT recommends that drivers take exit 160 in Jellico and follow US 25W to LaFollette and back to I-75 south at Exit 134 in Caryville.
Wide loads will have to exit off I-75 south at exit 160 in Jellico and turn right and follow state route 297 west to state route 63 and back onto I-75 south at Exit 141.
A 10News crew on the scene confirmed the closure shortly after 2:00 p.m. Friday.
Nagi told 10News that the work to repair the embankment will likely last for weeks.