Solar eclipse viewers expected to put pressure on road systems

Solar eclipse viewers expected to put pressure on road systems

August 20th, 2017 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

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With hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors staring up at the sky, Monday's eclipse is almost certain to cause headaches for local law enforcement and city officials bracing for huge influxes of people and traffic.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation estimates that anywhere from 300,000 to more than 1 million people will flood into the state for the event, putting pressure on the state's road systems, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol is encouraging drivers to be extra cautious.

"We would encourage all drivers to watch their following distances as they travel to their destinations due to the possible heavy volume of traffic," said Lt. John Harmon, a highway patrol spokesman.

"The [highway patrol's] goal is for everyone to enjoy the safe viewing of the eclipse and arrive alive."

He also discouraged drivers from stopping on the sides of interstates, saying it could be dangerous to the driver and others.

"The [highway patrol] wants everyone to know that stopping on the interstate system is prohibited, even in the emergency lane," he said. "The emergency lane is extremely important not to be blocked for the use of emergency vehicles if needed."

Finally, he said, motorists should continue to drive carefully after the event because the crowds who came to see likely will leave en masse as well.

"After the eclipse it is just as important to be very cautious also. It could be possible that many drivers quickly get back on our roadways with an influx of heavy traffic in a small amount of time," Harmon said.

A news release from the Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management also urged residents, businesses and visitors to plan for lengthy travel times.

"Start planning now for where you will go to view the eclipse in a safe location," the release stated. "Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination throughout the days ahead. Traffic may become heavy with large crowds driving in our area to view the eclipse."

Harmon said every trooper available will be working Monday to help keep Tennessee's roadways clear and flowing, but other law enforcement agencies have fewer hands on deck to deal with giant crowds.

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Spring City, Tenn., will be at the epicenter of the eclipse, and city officials expect more than 9,000 people to flock to the town of fewer than 2,000 residents. Homeland Security and the Rhea County Sheriff's Office have stepped in to assist the city's nine-person police department with security.

"All of us together to have tried to map out a game plan," City Manager Stephania Motes said. "It's fun at the same time as it is hectic."

She said the expected crowds have presented sizable logistical problems.

"For one thing, where are we going to put them all?" Motes said. "We've got room for people, but we're just going to have to see how many people pack in."

Motes is confident the law enforcement agencies she is working with will be able to provide adequate security, but she acknowledged there are some measures they won't be able to take, even if they want to. For instance, they don't have enough manpower to conduct bag checks.

"Physically, we don't have enough resources to have someone at every place to do that," she said. "It's definitely challenging."

But still, Motes said she's excited, and residents have been planning for months to accommodate a horde of people Monday. She said Spring City will take advantage of it by throwing a festival in Veterans Park.

"We've got 2,000 people here in the city and thinking about 10,000. That's five times the number you already have," Motes said. "This is an audience we'll never have again. We want them to come back."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.


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