SEQUATCHIE, Tenn. - A project to renovate and widen Valley View Highway's bridge over the Little Sequatchie River is intended to cut the number of traffic accidents at the 88-year-old span.
Kenneth and Deborah Matthews have lived at the north end of the bridge for 26 years and say they have seen more traffic accidents than they can count, including "seven or eight fatalities."
They both agree the project -- under a county contract with Rossville-based Talley Construction -- is a bit of an inconvenience for folks north of the Little Sequatchie because it involves a six-mile detour, but the bridge has needed work for years.
"There have been so many fatalities, and a lot of people have hit that bridge and been injured," Kenneth Matthews said while taking a break from working on his Cadillac.
Life Force medical helicopters frequently land in the field across Dancing Fern Road from the Matthewses' place to carry away the injured, the couple said.
Deborah Matthews said the family has had "a bird's-eye view" of the bridge work since it began in February.
State officials and Marion County Highway Superintendent Neil Webb said the work to widen and revamp the bridge is funded through a state-aid bridge grant that provides $387,004, and the county will contribute $96,832 in local funds and in-kind work.
"To save the highway department some money, we're going to do the approach work," Webb said.
The approaches are a problem area that Webb said probably caused most of the accidents over the years, including one hit-and-run in which he was the victim.
Webb was inspecting the old bridge the day the Tennessee Volunteers football team won the national championship in 1998.
"I saw the truck coming and was standing at the end of the bridge and looking up under it, and the next thing I knew I was flying through the air," he recalled, noting he still got to watch most of the third and fourth quarters of the game after he was treated for back injuries.
Stan Wallin, foreman for Talley Construction, said the project so far is "going pretty good," though he said there had been a little extra work underneath the structure.
Wallin said the six workers at the site Tuesday were jack-hammering away the "bad" concrete from the bridge deck for patching.
Wallin and county officials remarked about how much heavy rebar is in the old structure's concrete. They have no worries about structural weakness once the patches are done, he said.
"Then there'll be an overlay deck over the whole thing," Wallin said.
Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said the state has very little historical information on the Little Sequatchie River bridge beyond the year it was built. The old bridge is a 287-foot-long concrete deck girder bridge with seven spans, Flynn said.
County Mayor John Graham, Webb's predecessor as the county's roads chief, said the widening work "is critical."
Graham said the approaches to the bridge now are too low and angled for vehicles to pass safely.
"It's going to be a much, much safer structure," he said.