SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — The route from Sevierville to Cosby is now significantly longer, following a bridge collapse on State Route 339 near Wilhite Road.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation said the box bridge collapsed because of heavy rain on Monday afternoon. The road closure is indefinite.
The official route takes drivers up to 40 miles around, although there are local roads drivers can use instead.
"It's going to be a major impact," driver John Storen said. "Every day, twice a day the whole family [drives that road] back and forth. It's the main access road into Sevierville."
State inspection records show the bridge was originally constructed in 1940.
It received a sufficiency rating of 43.1 during its 2019 inspection. Two years later, the sufficiency rating was nearly half of that: 22.9. The total possible score, according to the Federal Highway Administration, is 100.
TDOT said "sufficiency" is a metric that combines several factors beyond the specific condition of the bridge, including the width of the roadway, the daily amount of traffic on the bridge, and the condition of various safety features.
A "poor" bridge could have a higher sufficiency rating than a "fair" bridge because the number is not used independently but instead used alongside the structural condition of the various elements of the bridge.
"We had made repairs in that area. There were still a couple of cosmetic things that had not been addressed yet," said Mark Nagi, a TDOT spokesperson. "But, the bridge was safe for travel, it wasn't weight limited or anything like that."
Inspectors recommended $169,000 in improvements to widen the bridge, although they noted deck repairs were not needed.
Its next regular inspection would've taken place in August of 2023, according to TDOT documents.
"Bridges in Tennessee are inspected at least every 24 months," Nagi said. "That's the schedule they have to be on."
Nagi said bridges with structural concerns could be inspected more often, like every year.
"We're not going to allow any part of any bridge, any roadway, whatever it may be... We're not going to allow it to be open if we feel that presents a danger to the motoring public," Nagi said.
In this case, he said flooding and heavy rain was to blame — not existing issues.
"There were times where the water flooded all the way over the top of the bridge," Nagi said. "We believe that that was the reason for the failure of that structure."
Any bridge with at least one component in poor or worse condition—a score of 4 or below—can be classified as "structurally deficient," according to the TDOT website.
"If there is part of a bridge that is deemed in a poor or worse rating, then that means that the entire bridge will be listed as deficient," Nagi said. "That doesn't mean that the bridge is unsafe for travel."
The bridge on Jones Cove Road in Sevierville received 3s on culvert condition, structural evaluation and deck geometry. It's on the most recent list of nearly 300 poor bridges owned by the state, published in August of 2021.
Three other state-owned bridges in Sevier County are listed on the 2021 report in "poor" condition.
That includes the bridge on SR-416 (Pittman Center Road) over Laurel Branch, which received a sufficiency rating of 65.4 in 2021. Inspectors recommended replacing the bridge for about $496,000.
The bridge over Little Pigeon River on SR-73 received a sufficiency rating of 37.7 in 2021. Inspectors recommended $1.3 million in improvements that would include bridge widening with deck repair or replacement.
The bridge over Webb Creek on SR-73 received a sufficiency rating of 30.5 in 2021. Inspectors recommended replacing the structure for about $1.4 million.
TDOT said the percentage of structurally deficient highway bridges has been reduced from about 20% in 1992 to less than 5% in 2018.