'Save our bridge' begins

Stephanie Myers-News-Herald

An effort to keep the current Fort Loudoun Dam bridge open after its replacement is erected and open to the public is gaining traction in the community.

Several residents, including State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, hope to turn the J. Carmichael Greer Bridge into a pedestrian walkway after the new four-laned bridge opens May 2015.

Matlock said while many lawmakers and those in the community agree with efforts to keep the bridge, the decision ultimately lies with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns and operates the bridge. The construction contract with the Tennessee Department of Transportation is an additional obstacle.

The $69.3 million project to build the new bridge includes TDOT dismantling the current structure, which spans over the 4,190-foot-long dam. The bridge was built in 1963.

"What we're asking them to do is allow us to leave it, incorporate it into bike riding trails, walking trails, and all of this tourism related," Matlock said. "It's exercise, which we know we all need. It's enjoying the beauty of the river, the view of the mountains. It's everything they have been telling us we need to be doing. Now we can do it if they would let us.

"We as Americans are overweight. We have diabetes, we have health issues," he said. "Everybody says the same things. Well, why won't TVA let us do it then?"

According to a website on the TDOT construction, the bridge hampers access by TVA to perform maintenance on the dam.

Matlock, who is a catalyst in the effort, said he believes the pros of keeping the bridge outweigh the negatives.

"The main thing from the federal government you've got the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard because there is a lock system which boats travel through them, they see that from a standpoint of security. Our answer to that is if you feel that strongly about it then why are you letting cars, tractor trailers and all these other things that are not checked daily, why are you letting them go through?" Matlock said.

"I guess the thoughts in my mind of a person with a backpack setting off a bomb compared to a gasoline-filled tanker truck five minutes from now it doesn't even seem reasonable to ask those questions," he said. "Most people believe the likelihood of the failure of a dam across our nation is not from someone on top of it but some boat or a barge that would blow it from the bottom. Again, that has nothing to do with the passage on the top of it."

Of the $69.3 million budgeted to construct the new bridge, $1 million has been set aside to dismantle the current bridge, Matlock said. He believes it would cost "zero" to convert the bridge from vehicle transportation to pedestrian, and the demolition money could be set aside for future maintenance.

"I imagine the contractors are going to baulk at that because there is going to be some profit in that $1 million for the demolition, and I'm sure they're going to fight that," Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, said.

The Lenoir City Committee of 100, a group of business leaders in the community, have formed a separate group to help save the bridge. The effort is lead by longtime Loudon County lawyer and resident Harvey Sproul.

"We're hoping the community will get behind us because that's probably what will really make a difference," Sproul said.

Healthy initiative
The idea is to tie walking trails from the Tellico Village area to Lenoir City Park and the city's walking pathways, making about six miles of trails almost immediately accessible. Matlock said he has been working aggressively on the initiative for about 18 months.

"We are bringing fishing tournaments into the community. Why can't we bring a triathlon to the community? I'm talking about a top tier that would be recognized throughout the Southeast," Matlock said.

Besides already having the infrastructure in place, pushing a healthy lifestyle in Loudon County is a big motivator.
"You look at the statistics, Tennessee is No. 48 on health in the entire nation. We are one of the most obese, the most inclined to have diabetes. We have heart disease, we have everything that screams out bad health, so if we know all of that let's get a real community initiative and lets's say to people, 'Hey, get off your you know what, get out here, and walk across wherever you want to walk but we've got a place like no other in accessibility," Matlock said. "We have parking. The pathway is there. We can connect up to what we've done in the city of Lenoir City throughout, so it just takes a little bit of vision."

TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said the key is getting TVA on board.

"If the local community has interest in keeping that bridge, they would need to work with TVA," Nagi said in an email correspondence.

TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said "the best decision" for TVA and its ratepayers was to remove the bridge from the dam.

"Removing the bridge would ensure dam safety and security, eliminate potential environmental issues from lead-based coatings used on the bridge and avoid continuing, substantial maintenance expenses for TVA — even if the bridge is used just for pedestrians," Mansfield said in an email correspondence. "TVA owns the bridge on the dam and is responsible for its maintenance. But the Federal Highway Administration has agreed to remove the old bridge at no cost to TVA as part of the bridge replacement project.

"If the bridge remained, TVA would have to maintain the bridge to TDOT/Federal Highway Administration standards even if it is used only for pedestrians," he said. "TVA would also have to address potential environmental/health issues involving Type II 'Red Lead' paint coatings on the bridge."

Clayton Pangle, executive director with the Loudon County Visitors Bureau, said he believes he has ammo to back the local initiative. There are 28 miles of trails coursing Loudon County, including the East Lakeshore Trail, a joint venture between the volunteer organization Watershed Association of the Tellico Reservoir and TVA.

Pangle said TVA made a financial commitment to build a bridge over a water body for the trail.

"Why not be able to continue their thought and use this as a connector to tie into the Lenoir City side of the river?" Pangle said.

Political backing?
Matlock, McNally and Calfee met with Commissioner TDOT John Schroer Wednesday morning in hopes of gaining support in state government.

"He knows all of the positives of what we're wanting to accomplish," Matlock said. "As commissioner of TDOT, he also recognizes the challenges of modifying a contract.

"The problem we are running up against is it all comes back to the federal government. It's a TVA issue. (Schroer) says in the contract that we have some real challenges because there was an agreement that the bridge would come down across the dams as we could over the next several years throughout the entire TVA system in the Southeast, which is our dam, Norris dam and several throughout the area," Matlock said. "We may disagree with them but they have their reasons.

"What we're trying now to do is to solicit the help from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr., R-Tenn., of which we have spoken to and they are all in agreement," he said.

"The help I need is all the civic organizations, all the business community, all the governments to stand with us while we take this issue both to the federal level, where ultimately decisions will be made, and get blessing, so to speak, from the Tennessee Department of Transportation," Matlock said, adding he is waiting on resolutions from all local municipalities to back the initiative.

"One of the first things you typically do is get a resolution," Sproul said.