Posted on April 20, 2017
“This is going to be the prettiest drive in America,” shouted U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander speaking at a ceremony on the so-called Missing Link section of Foothills Parkway.
The celebratory event was held Thursday on the still unfinished part of the parkway that winds high through the Smoky Mountains. The celebration was to announce the final phase of construction.
A contract was signed Wednesday on that last phase, the paving of an unfinished 16 miles of the parkway that when completed – hopefully by the winter of 2018-19 – will allow motorists to drive through the Smoky Mountains 33 miles from Chilhowee Lake to Wears Valley.
The $32 million total contract was awarded to APAC-Harrison Corporation, which has offices in Maryville.
That the Foothills Parkway was a project conceived in the 1940s and stopped for years several times is not lost on Alexander.
“This has been a fight for a long time,” Alexander said. “It ran completely out of money in the ‘70s and environmental issues stopped it again in the ‘80s. By the time I got into the Senate I was able to direct $25 to $30 million to the Foothills Parkway.
“A lot of people thought it was dead in the water because of the environmental concerns, but we were able to solve those environmental problems and finds some money,” he said, then after pausing a second to take in the view he added, “I would say it is worth the wait.”
The view of the highest mountains in the Eastern United States is an awesome one, but parkway construction has not been cheap.
Since 1966, $146 million has been invested in the Missing Link section that contains nine bridges, one 800 feet long. An additional $33 million will be needed to complete the sections.
A dream come true
All of the bridgework in this stretch has made it particularly pricey. But, for Alexander, who grew up just a few miles from here, it is a dream come true.
“I am amazed that this is finally going to happen,” he said. “I have always imagined what it would be like to get a view of these mountains from here. You can’t see this anywhere else.”
He said as a youth in Boy Scouts he had hiked through much of the park, but “this was hard to get to.”
Also speaking at the event were U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, who joked that he hoped a new health care law won’t take as long to enact as this project has to complete; Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash; and Melisa Ridenour of the Federal Highway Administration.
A long way from finished
Even on the completion of this stretch, the parkway is still a long way from being finished. It is planned to stretch 72 miles from Cosby to Chilhowee Lake. A total of 38.5 miles will be done with a chunk from Wears Valley to the Cosby area still to be completed. Just five miles of the parkway is done on the Cosby end.
When this section is completed, motorists will exit at Wears Valley on to U.S. 321 as it heads toward Pigeon Forge.
Paying the $33 million remaining for this part of the project is a demonstration of how it has come to be a shared effort among government entities.
The federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER VIII) funds were tapped for $10 million, the state of Tennessee is providing $15 million and the National Park Service will pay the rest.
“There will be millions of Americans who will come here to see this,” Alexander said. “They will come here and they will leave money. And, the best part is this will be the prettiest drive in America and it will be right here in our backyard.”