Elk Avenue Bridge to be completed by late May

By Thomas Wilson

   Restoration of the Elk Avenue Bridge is not expected to be done for at least two more months, according to officials with the Tennessee Department of Transportation who have a target completion date of May 31 - less than two weeks away from the beginning of the Covered Bridge Celebration.
   "We are not going to open the bridge unless it is perfectly safe," said Travis Brickey, community relations officer with TDOT's Region I office in Knoxville. "I think we are doing that."
   The timetable cuts very close to the 38th Annual Covered Bridge Celebration scheduled for June 9-13. The Elk Avenue Bridge has traditionally been a staging area for various festival events. Restoration of the bridge began shortly after the festival ended last year and the project was originally estimated to be complete by November 2003.
   Downtown merchants and motorists have decried the project's duration citing lost business and inconvenience in accessing U.S. Highway 19E and the Carter County Courthouse.
   The bridge was built in 1926 by the Luten Bridge Co. and was once lit by gas lamps. Brickey said construction crews had no records of the bridge design or structure to work from once the restoration began. "We really didn't know going into it what we were getting into," he said.
   Brickey said the contractor was forced to replace the bridge deck and approximately 300 bridge spindles to reinforce the structure.
   The concrete poured in the deck, arches, abutments and piers when the bridge was first built is being replaced with modern concrete. Also, the decorative urn bridge railings will be restored. Brickey said when contractors were removing the decayed ornate handrails on the bridge, a portion of the bridge collapsed. The handrails had to be recast and molded.
   The existing modern aluminum streetlights have been removed from the bridge and the original concrete lampposts are being restored. The new lights will be powered by electricity.
   The bridge's age and structural deficiency initially had it set for replacement. However, after an outcry to restore the historical integrity of the bridge instead of erecting a new concrete flat top, City Council members voted to accept federal funds to restore the bridge rather than replace it.
   The project is being funded with federal funds through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Total cost of the restoration project exceeds $1 million and is being completed with 80 percent federal funds administered through TDOT plus matching funds from the city.
   Flooding in November that raised the Doe River through the county also set the project back several weeks. Brickey said balancing the historical aesthetics of a bridge and maintaining its safety could extend a project's time.
   "We are going through the same thing here at the Gay Street Bridge here in Knoxville," he said. "They found some structural things that had to be replaced because it wouldn't be safe otherwise."