Foothills Parkway Offers Scenic Vistas Nobody Can See

Tue September 27, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Kate Zanoni

As management changed and funding diminished, road construction on the Foothills Parkway in Tennessee has been a slow-moving process for approximately 45 years.

Throw in environmental concerns, engineering challenges and unstable terrain and the result has been a construction timeline that has stretched through several decades.

Construction on the parkway has been an on-again-off-again project since 1960.

The unfinished road is a two-lane scenic stretch of highway that runs alongside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Until it is completed, the parkway is open only to pedestrians, bicyclists and equestrians from Wears Valley to Caylor Gap.

Unauthorized traffic is not permitted from the gate located in Walland, TN, up to the project site. This road closure will remain in effect until the project’s completion.

Next Step Delayed

All hope is not lost, however, as Charles Blalock and Sons Inc. of Knoxville, TN, have recently been awarded a $4.7-million contract to complete the third bridge (called No. 8) in the “missing link” at Caylor Gap.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) award will fund the 220-ft. (67.1 m) AASHTO girder bridge and approximately 50 ft. (15.2 m) of road that will connect with existing bridge nine.

Construction was scheduled to begin July 11, but the start of the project has been pushed behind schedule. With the Sept. 16, 2006, contract deadline looming ahead, time ticks away as construction of bridge 8 continues to be delayed.

The contract includes drainage, asphalt paving and bridgework.

Two abutments and two concrete piers will support the structure. Each abutment wing wall will be faced with Class B stone masonry.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials ensure that the techniques applied to the construction of this bridge will minimize environmental disturbances.

The current work also will appeal to the aesthetics of the Smokies. Like the first two completed bridges, the third will blend in with the surrounding vegetation. Contractors mix a coloring agent with the concrete to produce this “eye-pleasing” effect.

Mike Tomkosky, landscape architect of the National Park Service, currently coordinates the Federal Lands Highway program in the park.

“The piers and exposed concrete will be placed using pigmented concrete to appear dark gray in color, so as not to stand out to view from below,” he said.

Miscellaneous associated work will include re-vegetation, turf establishment and maintenance of traffic control throughout the park.

According to Tomkosky, the railings on bridges 9 and 10 are coated wire mesh because there was not enough funding during construction to include a vehicle rated aluminum bridge railing.

However, the contract to construct bridge 8 includes removing the mesh fencing on bridges 9 and 10 and installing vehicle rated aluminum bridge railings on each.

The contract requires that the High Performance Concrete (HPC) overlays on the decks of existing bridges 9 and 10 be approved prior to beginning construction of bridge 8. To date, the contractor has not been able to get an acceptable mix design for the HPC approval.

After trying several batches in early August, one successfully passed the field quality control requirements, but has not passed a series of laboratory tests that take up to 42 days to complete.

If the new mix passes the laboratory tests, the earliest the contractor will receive approval to begin is mid-September.

With the next stepping-stone toward project completion in place, the FHWA is looking forward to moving the Foothills Parkway plan along.

Ron Zeitz, FHWA spokesman, explained the delay in the completion of the parkway.

“Since it is not a major interstate, there is not a push to get this project completed,” said Zeitz. “We also had to eliminate environmental issues first. Things like that take precedence before construction can begin.”

He said a project of this caliber could not be completed overnight. “There has to be a gestation period.”

A Tourist Vista

The concept for the Foothills Parkway was developed in the 1920s to provide breathtaking scenic views of the Smokies for highway drivers. The plan was finally approved by Congress 20 years later in 1944.

Congress’ plan called for the Foothills Parkway to span across 72 mi. (115.9 km) along the park’s boundary from Cosby in the east to Chilhowee Lake in the west, but construction did not get under way until 1960.

Since the initial construction began approximately 50 years ago, only two segments of the road have been completed: a 5.6-mi. (9 km) section from Cosby to I-40 and a 17-mi. (27.4 km) section from Walland to Chilhowee Lake.

Although a 16-mi. (25.7 km) section from Walland to Wear Valley was partially completed in 1980, environmental challenges and engineering issues arose and brought the project to yet another standstill.

Due to a 1.6-mi. (2.6 km) length of unstable, rocky ridges and ravines, engineers could not figure out how to close the gap across Caylor Gap and bring the two completed sections together.

Since the “missing link” is a rather environmentally sensitive area, the consequences of completing the road may be detrimental to several different species of wildlife.

Following field studies of several factors (including geology, soils, ecological resources, air and water quality, traffic, aesthetic and socio-economic), the assessment found that the effects could be potentially damaging to the surrounding terrain from slope instability, which would result in a significant loss of a variety of the park’s wildlife.

To minimize environmental wear and tear and avoid large cuts and fills in the rugged terrain, the National Park Service developed a new design that requires the construction of 10 bridges.

Bridges 9 and 10, the first two of the series, were completed in 2001, but management changes, lack of funding and legislative difficulties caused work on the Foothills Parkway to cease once more.

Signs of Life

In the mid-1990s, controlled vehicular traffic was allowed on the 8.5 mi. (13.7 km) of the incomplete Foothills Parkway from Walland up to 1 mi. (1.6 km) west of the “missing link.”

Tomkosky said that this accommodated sightseers on the weekends during the month of October when the autumn foliage glows at its brightest.

However, this road activity ceased for a number of reasons. The road has not yet been maintained as an open-road corridor. Therefore, the asphalt surface is incomplete, vegetation has restricted site views and safety features such as rails and walls have not been installed.

Recent travel restrictions have been put into place because the overall condition of the Foothills Parkway is not conducive to unrestricted vehicular traffic.

Bridging the Gap

Finishing all 10 bridges will take an unknown number of years, but this “missing link” is essentially the key section of the Foothills Parkway. Without it, the project will remain Tennessee’s oldest unfinished public works plan.

Once the entire Foothills project is finally completed, the series of 10 bridges will tie together 16 mi. (25.7 km) more of parkway and cut down on traffic congestion within the central portion of the park.

Without a push to complete the highway, the road will remain unchanged and 9 mi. of unfinished highway will continue to lurk in the Smokies. CEG