Bridge opens to traffic

Traffic returns to normal on Elk Avenue

By Thomas Wilson

   Years in the making and months in the restoration, the Elk Avenue bridge opened to vehicle traffic Friday afternoon for the first time in almost a year.
   Tennessee Department of Transportation representatives and city government officials gathered at the bridge shortly after 1 p.m. Friday to give the bridge one final visual inspection and open it to motorist traffic. The opening came as a relief to local and state officials after months of delay extended the project's work time.
   "It is the type project that if we hadn't done it now, we wouldn't have had a say in when we would have had to done it," said Mayor Sam LaPorte, who along with city Councilman Pat "Red" Bowers, moved the "Road Closed" signs at East Elk Avenue in an informal opening ceremony to bring the first vehicles over the bridge.
   Since the bridge restoration began in June 2003, vehicle traffic has been diverted from East Elk Avenue as motorists have used Broad and Sycamore streets among other side streets to access U.S Highway 19E. State transportation officials oversaw the bridge's restoration.
   "It is a bigger job than contemplated," said Harold Martin, assistant to the TDOT's regional director. Martin said department officials inspected bridges every two years to assess safety and structural reliability.
   City officials and organizers of the Covered Bridge Celebration did not expect the bridge to be open when the festival started June 9. The Downtown Cruise-In event of the Carter County Car Club should pick up additional display and event space with the bridge opening.
   "I am very happy to see the bridge completed," David Ornduff, city director of planning and development, said Friday as he watched the first vehicles cross the bridge in almost a year. Ornduff said refurbishment of the Covered Bridge would likely be completed by the end of May.
   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. TDOT officials reported last week that the bridge's total restoration price rose from the initial cost of $766,455 to over $1.9 million.
   The city's matching costs originally totaled approximately $200,000. With the $1.1 million cost overrun, the city faces coming up with possibly tens of thousands of dollars to cover the costs depending on its contract with TDOT.
   The City Council passed the city government's 2004-2005 budget at its May meeting Thursday night. LaPorte said the city was not overly concerned about the additional costs.
   "It is not budgeted at all," he said of the cost overrun. "That's what you have a reserve fund for."
   General Constructors, Inc., selected last year to restore the bridge, reported the bridge's structural condition to be much worse than originally thought. Contractors were unable to determine the extent of structural problems until top layers of concrete were uncovered, according to TDOT officials. 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 lampposts that were lit by gas. The lamps have been recast and are powered by electricity. City Council members passed a resolution at Thursday night's meeting to prohibit vehicle parking on the bridge per regulations pertaining to federally funded bridge projects.