Will ‘save our bridge’ work?
Stephanie Myers News-Herald.net
An initiative to retain the J. Carmichael Greer Bridge over Fort Loudoun Dam as a pedestrian walkway seems to have reached the tug-of-war stage.

More local organizations and officials have joined in support of a resolution to keep the bridge, while Tennessee Valley Authority officials appear adamant in their stance to demolish the structure.

State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, who has spearheaded the initiative, said he believes with backing from many in the community, Nashville and the nation’s capital, the idea can still be a reality.

After its replacement is erected and open to the public, the bridge, if retained, could be turned into a pedestrian walkway connecting to Lenoir City Park, Tellico Village and eventually East Lakeshore Trail in Greenback and even greenways in Maryville, Alcoa and Anderson County.

Lenoir City Council, Loudon County Commission, Lenoir City Committee of 100 and local schools, homeowners associations and civic groups have passed resolutions supporting the bridge’s retention, which was budgeted to be demolished in the nearly $70 million Tennessee River bridge project.

“We are getting almost unanimous support,” Matlock said.

While TVA has had discussions with the representative, the stance seems clear.

TVA spokesman Travis Brickey said TVA’s concern is the cost to retain the bridge in the long run.

“If the bridge were to remain in service much larger dollar amounts would be required to keep it functioning,” Brickey said, adding that the cost to maintain the bridge fluctuates annually. TVA spent $43,000 in maintenance last year.

“And we’ve already spent money in fiscal year ’14 on the bridge,” Brickey said. “... That doesn’t include what would have to be required to leave the bridge, right? A lot of this maintenance is just really maintenance to just keep it in service and lasting because the plan is for that bridge to be removed, right?

“So it’s just some preventative maintenance and some maintenance to keep everything functioning correctly, and the bridge operating correctly with the idea that in a few years there won’t be any traffic on it,” he added. “We are doing that necessary maintenance on it now. It is ongoing maintenance. ... And anything we take on, all the ratepayers, the users of electricity end up having to pay that in their power bills because TVA, we are funded only by the sale of electricity. We don’t get any taxpayer money.”

Matlock proposed using the almost $1 million budgeted to demolish the bridge as maintenance funds for the pedestrian walkway.

“We believe that can last a long, long time,” Matlock said. “We don’t know yet how many years we can use that $1 million, but I do know this: The decking has been redone in the last four years. It’s been repainted within the last five years. The lights have been fixed within the last two years, so it’s not like we’ve got a bridge that has not been in good state.

“And remember the 21,000 vehicles every day,” he said. “Forty percent of them are large commercial vehicles, so when you remove the wear and tear and change it over to two bicycle wheels and a pair of tennis shoes, I think you can anticipate many, many years you don’t have to deplete your funds because it’s really more of a maintenance issue. It’s not a rebuilding anything. It’s just retaining at that point.”

Brickey said TVA would still be required to meet certain standards, even if the infrastructure was just used for pedestrians.

Potential environmental issues also exist from lead-based coatings with the existing bridge, TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said in an earlier email correspondence.

“... But the Federal Highway Administration has agreed to remove the old bridge at no cost to TVA as part of the bridge replacement project,” Mansfield said.

With the potential to connect with neighboring county greenways, Matlock said the initiative is a green step for Lenoir City. He believes there are more reasons to keep the bridge than to tear it down.

“It would get people active physically; it would lend us as a destination point for people traveling,” Matlock said. “It is already there. We don’t have to build something. It’s already in existence. We do have to just think about maintenance of the bridge, so we think we have a tremendous asset that any other community would love to have a chance for. We already have it.”

The resolution has received backing in Nashville and in Washington, D.C., with assistance from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr., R-Tenn. State Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, also voiced support.

“He’s (Alexander) been trying to get the right people in place for us to have meeting with,” Matlock said, adding that the group met with management, which he would not name, in the beginning of February.

Though TVA seems entrenched, Matlock said the idea to save the bridge has traction.

“People are following our argument, which is for the health of our community, the walking and bicycle riding,” he said. “I think everyone sees the need for that. I think the beauty of the area, and I think the opportunity to bring in new tourism I think it is going to” help.

It’s been a push Matlock and State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, have been working on for the past four years.

Moving forward with the initiative, Matlock said he will continue speaking with local groups in hopes of rallying more interest and support.

“We’ve also gotten endorsements from the Triathlon Association of East Tennessee,” he said. “We are working with the tourism bureau to partner with them, and so we are coming at it from several sides. ... We have no identified opponent of it because everyone sees the merit. The challenge is convincing the federal government that it’s not a safety risk, and it’s not a maintenance challenge.”