SNEEDVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Endangered freshwater mussels living in the Clinch River in upper East Tennessee have derailed a plan to build a temporary bridge in Hancock County while an existing bridge is repaired.
Residents in the community of Kyles Ford argued in a public meeting held by the Tennessee Department of Transportation on Nov. 3 that without a bridge, commute time would increase about 45 minutes and emergency vehicles would face a delay.
The Kingsport Times News reported that TDOT Regional Director Steve Borden told the crowded courthouse that federal regulations protecting the 27 endangered species of mussels in the river prevent the state from building a temporary bridge that could affect their habitat.
TDOT estimates nearly 700 vehicles per day cross the 83-year-old existing bridge on Route 70 North, which is scheduled to be under repair for 12-18 months. Borden said the state has moved up the bid letting period from March to December for the repairs.
Many of those drivers live in Hancock County or southwest Virginia and drive to jobs in Rogersville, Kingsport, Morristown and other areas to the south. Hancock County is the poorest county in the state and more than half commute out of the county to their jobs.
Traffic would have to be detoured to the Route 31 bridge in Sneedville, which could add about 45 minutes to drivers’ commute.
School children who live south of the bridge also will be affected. Borden said the state is also lowering the current weight restriction on the bridge from 10 tons to 5 tons due to deterioration. School buses are too heavy to travel over the bridge and will now have to use the detour.
Former U.S. Rep. Bill Jenkins who attended the hearing suggested that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporary bridge could be installed and that the mussels’ habitat was not impacted by the construction of the original bridge.
Jenkins said the government shouldn’t increase economic burdens on the lives of Kyles Ford residents by protecting the mussel.
“The consensus of the people — in fact the bottom line is — that we think that we’re just a little bit more important than the snail darter or the mussel,” said Hancock County Mayor Thomas Harrison.
County resident Jack Dyson said he believes the detour could cost lives if a temporary bridge is not installed.
“I’m speaking for the elderly I’ve spoken to today who will not go to a doctor because of the route you have to take,” he said. “And I invite all of you gentlemen to come spend a weekend when it’s snowed in.”
State Rep. Mike Harrison, a Republican from Rogersville, said he is determined to prevent the route from being closed.
“I don’t see why in the world, if we go up the river a certain amount of space, that we can’t put up some type of temporary bridge...” said Harrison, who also is a former Hancock County mayor. He also objected to the state changing the weight limits without enough notice.
“It’s just like everything’s getting shoved down this community’s throat,” Harrison said. “We’re just not giving this community the time they need to adapt to this.”