Fight to save Fort Loudoun Dam bridge begins
Megan Boehnke knoxnews.com
If crews demolish the Fort Loudoun Dam bridge as planned next year, “million-dollar views” and a chance to connect the county’s greenways will go with it.
Instead, local officials and state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, have mounted a campaign to preserve the 52-year-old bridge as bicycle and pedestrian walkway.
“Every city in America wants to have what we already have — a beautiful walkway over a beautiful piece of God’s real estate,” Matlock said. “Every community today is talking about greenways and trailways and riding ways and things to draw people to it. We’ve got it in place and it’s here. Why not utilize what’s already present?”
But time is running out to save the J. Carmichael Greer Bridge and Matlock said he’s being stonewalled by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the bridge.
Despite requesting meetings with top TVA officials for 18 months — and even receiving help from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who also requested a meeting on Matlock’s behalf — the state lawmaker said he has yet to talk with anyone outside the utility’s public affairs office.
“Some unelected, unaccountable person inside TVA has decided these bridges need to come off the dams,” he said. “And this will be the way they get started in the Tennessee Valley.”
TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Monday the public utility is concerned about safety, liability and the cost of continuing to maintain the bridge, even for foot traffic.
“We don’t typically put bridges directly over dams for a number of reasons, particularly in this post-9/11 world,” Hopson said. “The logical thing is to proceed with the plan as it was originally discussed with (the Tennessee Department of Transportation). From a bigger perspective, it’s a liability and a cost issue.”
The demolition is part of $69 million TDOT project to widen U.S. Highway 321 and build three new bridges in the area. Construction on the project is expected to be completed by June 2016, according to the TDOT website.
Roughly $1 million of that contract is earmarked for razing the existing bridge over the dam.
Matlock and others have proposed moving that money into an escrow account and using it to cover maintenance on the bridge over the next 25 years.
Building extensions to link the bridge to existing trail systems could also be done at no cost to local taxpayers, he said.
The county recently completed the 30-mile East Lakeshore Trail along Tellico Lake, which begins at the base of the bridge. Other plans for additional trails are already in the works and officials hope to eventually connect their greenways with those in Blount County.
“The only way to connect all those is crossing the river,” said Steve Harrelson, a Loudon County commissioner and Lenoir City parks and recreation director. “We just thought it would be a perfect fit to keep the (existing) bridge rather than having people walking and biking on that new bridge that’s going to be wider and have cars going faster.”
Losing the bridge would also mean losing the “million-dollar views” of Fort Loudoun Lake set against the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains, said Clayton Pangle, director of the Loudon County Visitor’s Bureau.
“We’re fearful of losing the opportunity,” Pangle said. “The bridge is going to come down as part of the phase of building the new bridge, and if there’s not a serious conversation ... to look at the real feasibility of preserving this bridge, then there won’t be a bridge.”