The state's new signature bridge over the Ocoee River on U.S. Highway 64 in Polk County is behind schedule but the contractor intends to complete paving work and move traffic flow to the stylish new span by the original May 30 contract completion date, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
With just more than two weeks left in the month, contractor Charles Blalock and Son Inc. has asked the state for more time on the work that started in September 2020, and the cost has climbed from $12.6 million to $13.8 million related to utilities.
"The contractor is confident traffic will be shifted to the new bridge by this date," Department of Transportation spokesperson Rae-Anne Bradley said Thursday in an email. "TDOT is in the process of reviewing the contractor's request for additional time. Discussions are ongoing."
The contractor plans to start paving work soon and once that is complete, traffic can be moved over to the new bridge planned as a gateway to the Ocoee River Gorge and Cherokee National Forest, Bradley said.
Ocoee River bridge behind schedule
Following the traffic shift, demolition of the old bridge and any other remaining work will happen at night, and motorists should experience minimal disruptions, Bradley said.
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Dale Dockery, Charles Blalock and Sons' general concrete superintendent in the company's Sevierville office, said he hoped there would be no need for additional time but that unforeseen circumstances did slow progress some.
When a contractor encounters problems that could cause a delay, TDOT must be notified within 30 days, even if the contractor later finds it could make its deadline, Dockery said Thursday in a telephone interview.
"We're striving to get it done as close to completion time as possible," he said. "We may or may not require any more time, but we've got some issues we feel justifies a little more time if needed."
Whether the time extension is granted or not, Dockery said crews are heading for the finish line.
"We've got to get the old bridge demolished, and I'll start on it the day we turn the traffic over," he said, referring to the day traffic switches to the new bridge.
The old bridge over the Ocoee, built in 1937, is showing structural deterioration, according to TDOT.
The existing span is 546 feet long with two 12-foot-wide lanes, one in each direction, and 1-foot-wide shoulders, according to TDOT records.
The new bridge is a three-span, 600-foot-long steel I-beam structure that will have two, 12-foot-wide travel lanes, one in each direction, and 10-foot-wide shoulders. A dedicated center turn lane is planned for the widened approaches, officials said.
Request for qualifications for design-build: September 2018.Shortlist of qualifying design-build teams: January 2019.Issue request for proposal for design-build: April 2019.Review of technical/pricing proposals: October 2019.Design-build contract awarded: Nov. 18, 2019.Construction activities begin: Sept. 8, 2020.Original completion date: May 2022.Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation
The "signature" design, as officials have called it, that sets the bridge apart from most others is the Ocoee River emblem, rock finishes, an aesthetic bridge rail and lighting that will highlight travelers' entrance into Parksville and Ocoee lakes, the Ocoee River and the Cherokee National Forest, according to TDOT. For those on the lower Ocoee River passing under the new bridge, the span offers a rare artistic view of the unique, decorative features that make the bridge a gateway for paddlers as well.
The cost increase from the original $12.6 million to $13.8 million is related to the relocation of utilities along the newly-aligned roadway and bridge, Bradley said.
"These utility relocations were always part of the original scope. However, due to the sequence of the design-build delivery method, the costs of the relocations could not be included at the time of the bid," she said.
Bradley said the plans always included relocating the utilities, but because of the way projects are bid and managed, the utility relocations were not included in the original project bid. TDOT added utility relocation costs to the contract amount through a change order after utility coordination was complete and all the roadway plans were completed, she said.
It's possible a continued delay could cost the contractor.
"TDOT is still determining if liquidated damages will be charged, pending its decision on additional time," she said. "Generally, liquidated damages are applicable from the contract completion date - as determined by the original contract or change order - until the project is substantially complete."
There was no time given on when that decision would be made.
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Dennis and Michelle Anderson own the Ocoee Dam Deli and Diner at the corner of Highway 64 and Hildabrand Road on the west end of the project, where they've had a front-row seat to watch the bridge replacement and realignment evolve for the past 18 months or so.
Since fall 2020, heavy equipment has trundled around the west end of the restaurant parking area doing the work to realign the section of Highway 64 with the new bridge and construct a new intersection on Hildabrand Road at the corner of the Andersons' lot.
"So we're happy with having a new bridge and not taking our storefront, but right now it's a little bit difficult," Dennis Anderson said in a telephone interview. "We want people to know the Dam Deli is open, even with the construction."
There are good days and bad as the project's neighbor.
"The construction is getting us a little bit, but hopefully they'll have it all laid back out," he said. "Today, some people aren't turning in."
On a recent day, a makeshift entrance to the restaurant parking lot was formed with barriers and gravel, and it was easy to miss for travelers unfamiliar with getting in and out of the ever-changing parking lot. Several customers made their way in anyway.
"The construction crew is really working in our favor," Michelle Anderson said. "They've done a lot of changes for us they didn't have to do."
Despite the occasional inconveniences, the Andersons said the contractor's crew has tried to be good neighbors and the end result of the project will be worth the trouble.
"They have been super kind and super nice, and we have a really good relationship with them," Dennis Anderson said. "They've been doing everything they can. If it's not raining, they've been working."
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Across the highway at Cascade Outdoors, rafting outfitter owner Kip Gilliam had an equally good view throughout the project, but since most of the work is on the other side, he said he's experienced no inconvenience at all.
"It hasn't bothered us, and they've done a good job about keeping everything flowing as best they could," Gilliam said Thursday in a telephone interview as he watched the crew working. Construction equipment could be heard clanking in the background. "They haven't stopped traffic at any point in the project."
The unique features of the bridge will be a treat for people floating and paddling in the Ocoee's slower-moving downstream waters, he said.
"I think it's going to look great," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."
As far as getting a new, wider bridge, Gilliam is a cheerleader.
"I know driving a rafting bus on the old bridge over the last 25 years has not been one of my favorite activities," he said.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.