Elk Avenue Bridge opens today

Delays push project's cost near $2 million

By Thomas Wilson

   After months of delay and a total cost that reportedly nears $2 million, the newly restored Elk Avenue Bridge is expected to reopen for motorist traffic today.
   Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesman Travis Brickey said Thursday TDOT officials would oversee the bridge's opening Friday afternoon. Brickey said cost overruns have pushed the bridge's total restoration price from the initial cost of $766,455 to over $1.9 million.
   "We basically had to rebuild the whole bridge," said Brickey. "This bridge is better and stronger today that it was when it was originally built."
   Funded through an 80 to 20 percent split of federal transportation funds and matching local dollars, restoration of the bridge began almost one year ago with the initial completion date set for November. The project's original cost was $766,455.85 with the city's matching costs totaling approximately $200,000.
   The match was included in the city's 2004 fiscal year budget. With the $1.1 million cost overrun, the city's total match could jump substantially depending on its contract with TDOT.
   At Thursday night's City Council meeting, City Manager Charles Stahl said the restoration project was worth the extended time to ensure the bridge's structural safety and retain its historical significance.
   "(The contractors) took a lot of pride in restoring that bridge," said Stahl.
   City Director of Finance, Brad Moffitt, said Thursday night that the city received no official notice from the TDOT that the bridge would be opening. He also said transportation officials had not submitted a revised number to his office detailing the city's burden for the increased costs.
   "There could be two or three interpretations of the contract," said Moffitt.
   The bridge's opening comes as welcome news to motorists and downtown business owners. Traffic has been diverted from East Elk Avenue near the Carter County Courthouse for almost one year as motorists have used Broad and Sycamore streets to access U.S Highway 19E.
   General Constructors, Inc. was selected last year as the preferred bidder to restore the bridge. A TDOT spokesperson stated last week that contractors found the bridge's structural condition to be much worse than originally thought. The problems resulted in unanticipated and substantial concrete and bridge spindle replacement.
   Contractors were unable to determine the extent of structural problems until top layers of concrete were uncovered, according to TDOT. Heavy rainfall caused massive flooding around the county in November, swelling the Doe River and causing further delays to the project.
   The Elk Avenue Bridge was originally built in 1926 by the Luten Bridge Company and featured lamp posts that were lit by gas. The lamps have been recast and are powered by electricity. The restored bridge also features wide pedestrian walkways and the original bronze plaque that commemorated the bridge's construction 78 years ago.
   City officials initially sought to replace the bridge with a flat, modern bridge design. However, several citizens urged maintaining the structure's aesthetic integrity through a restoration based on the existing design. Stahl felt that replacing the bridge would not have lessened the time of the bridge's closure.
   "The time involved would have been at least as long," said Stahl, "because they would have removed the old structure and a piece of history would have been lost."