A $9 million project to repair extensive landslide damage on Suck Creek Road, triggered by heavy rain the weekend of the Easter 2020 tornado outbreak, is still ongoing after more than two years.
The work on two slide areas is 32% complete and is expected to be finished by Aug. 31, 2023, according to Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Rae-Anne Bradley. One slide site is near the bottom on the Chattanooga side of Suck Creek Mountain, and the other is about a mile up the slope on the winding two-lane road.
"On the lower end of the project, we're replacing a damaged box culvert with a single span bridge and shoring up the slope," Bradley said Tuesday in an emailed response to questions about the work at the two sites. "On the upper end of the project, we're installing a soil nail wall and bank stabilization system."
Soil nails are typically hollow tubes driven horizontally into the ground and grouted into place below the road bed to support it and prevent it from shifting. So far, the project contractor, Jackson, Tennessee-based Dement Construction Co., has experienced no delays, Bradley said.
According to TDOT traffic data from 2021, more than 4,000 vehicles per day travel the west side of Suck Creek Mountain, while more than 4,500 travel the east side nearest Chattanooga.
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For Linda Hooper and her husband, Ed, the ongoing work is a major obstruction between their home in Whitwell in Marion County and Chattanooga.
"The construction has added about 20-30 minutes to our trips to Chattanooga," Linda Hooper said Wednesday in an email. "We currently have to travel at least twice a week due to my husband's medical treatment."
Hooper said problems with the road should have been addressed before it became an emergency because it's such an important route for local residents, and Suck Creek Road -- also known along its path as state Route 27 -- needs work in two other areas, too.
"This road is a lifeline for the people in north Marion County and Grundy who work in Chattanooga, yet it seems TDOT has no repair plans for the other areas that need attention and instead plans to widen the road between Jasper and Kimball, which is nobody's lifeline," she said. "Heavy trucks should be banned from traveling this road because of its fragile condition."
Hooper said there's a safety issue because of motorists' behavior.
"One issue is people who don't obey the traffic signals and cause some scary situations," she said.
Fellow Whitwell resident Jessica Privett, a daily commuter to Chattanooga, said she heard a wrong-way driver in the construction area collided head-on with another car recently, and it worries her when she drives though the one-lane portions of the two project areas.
"It's not the fault of TDOT, but people will run the red lights," Privett said of the two temporary signals in the construction area.
Daily drivers try to anticipate the delay, but sometimes other problems crop up, she said.
"You do have to plan ahead. You have to allocate maybe an extra 15 minutes for the traffic," Privett said Wednesday in a phone interview. "There's two traffic lights on that road. Sometimes, they'll be delayed or the light won't change for some reason, like the power has been out the night before."
When inoperable traffic lights greet her, Privett said drivers headed for Marion County then have to reroute 20 minutes back to Interstate 24 as an alternate. She said she'll be glad when the work is finished.
Greg Elie has lived on top of Suck Creek Mountain for 13 years, drives to work in Chattanooga and agrees the project area has become dangerous.
"I think people are growing impatient, which causes them to do dumb stuff, which we don't need on the mountain," Elie said Wednesday in a phone interview. "People are driving more aggressive and trying to get through the lights."
He said social media pages have emerged from regular drivers of Suck Creek Road to alert them to problems.
Elie echoed Hooper in that he wishes TDOT had addressed the problem before it got so bad.
The problems on Suck Creek Road were on TDOT's radar some time before the collapse.
Damage on Suck Creek Road started showing up in small slope failures in May 2019 at the county line near the bridge over Suck Creek as it heads to the Tennessee River, According to TDOT.
TDOT crews milled sharp edges of the cracks in the pavement and started monitoring the road for more movement. In July 2019, TDOT began working on an engineering solution while performing some repairs on the damaged box culvert.
The knockout punch came in the form of deadly nighttime storms on Easter Sunday 2020 that dealt out the most damage, dropping more than 5 inches of rain on the Suck Creek watershed, doing more severe damage and causing another slope failure a mile up the mountain road, according to TDOT.
The night of the tornado outbreak -- April 12-13, 2020 -- an 8-foot-by-8-foot concrete box culvert under the road started separating along with more slope failures at the lower site, according to TDOT. That same night, the heavy runoff eroded away material on the edge of the road under the concrete barriers and tumbled huge foundation rocks that supported the road down the slope toward Suck Creek.
Officials suspected ongoing erosion under the barriers had been hidden from view for some time.
Within a week of the storms, the pavement that had only small cracks in July 2019 began subsiding, with larger cracks opening not just in one lane but both lanes, and cracks also began appearing where the concrete box culvert lies under the pavement, TDOT officials said at the time. Because of the work's proximity to the creek, TDOT had a longer application process than usual to get the appropriate permits.
In the coming days, Dement's crews will continue work at both ends, according to Bradley. Traffic will continue to be controlled by the temporary traffic lights.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.