Major gap bridged in Foothills Parkway 'missing link'

12:13 AM, Jun 25, 2013   |    comments
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East Tennesseans have heard this before, but crews are truly making progress on the unfinished section of the Foothills Parkway along the base of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Foothills Parkway remains the oldest unfinished highway in Tennessee.  The vision for the project began in the early 20th century and construction started in the 1960s.  The on-again off-again project has repeatedly run into problems with federal funding in addition to immense physical obstacles.

Monday morning officials with the Park had concrete reasons to celebrate progress with the completion of a massive 800 foot bridge along a gap in construction known as the "missing link."

"This section of very challenging topography is about a 1.6 mile section, we refer to it as the 'missing link.'  Construction here just stopped because it was almost impossible to build here for so long," said Dana Soehn, GSMNP spokesperson.

Until a few years ago, there was still no feasible way to overcome the financial and physical obstacles to close the gap in the missing link between Walland and Wears Valley.  Momentum came with a shot of federal stimulus money.

"That put the money in place for this bridge. That leveraged a bunch of other money in federal dollars and got people realizing we could really get this section open," said superintendent Dale Ditmanson.

The newest and biggest bridge presented the most challenges to engineers because it could only be built from one side.

"This one had some extremely difficult terrain. Usually, you are able to build a bridge from several angles.  In this case, we could only go on one side and extend it out towards where it would finish," said Federal Highway Administration bridge engineer Hratch Pakhchanian.  "One lane of the bridge hugs the mountain side where on the other side the bridge is well over the trees, so it was very steep. We did very little ground disturbance down below. The footprint of the bridge is minimal compared to normal bridge construction."

Park officials say they plan to have the bridge open to traffic sometime in 2016.  Between now and then, crews will have to construct five more bridges along the missing link and secure funding to pave the road.  Until construction is complete, it remains closed to all vehicles and hikers.

Whenever the project is finally complete, drivers will encounter a link to unparalleled scenery and discover exactly what they have been missing.

"All I would say is look behind me and then 'wow.' When you come around that corner you'll be in the trees on this road, you'll break out of the trees, and this bridge is going to look like it is hanging on air," said Ditmanson.

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