GUILD, Tenn. — Multiple landslides along a mile-long section of highway in Marion County are forcing state officials to begin searching for long-term solutions to a problem that has plagued local residents for decades.
The stretch of road on Highway 41 — dubbed the Dixie Highway in the South — has been in almost constant upheaval since it was built. Federal Highway Administration records show U.S. 41 construction began in the mid-1920s. State transportation officials say it's been an ongoing maintenance nightmare.
In 1982, one slide destroyed Sullivan's store, owner Randall Sullivan told the Times Free Press in 2013. The current store — the third — was built on top of the rubble, he said.
EVEN WORSE THAN 41?
TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn says U.S. Highway 41 isn’t the worst road in the TDOT Region 2’s 24-county district. That title goes to State Route 85 in Fentress and Overton counties. The road has been completely closed to traffic since the record-setting rain on Feb. 23 with slide problems similar to those in Marion County.
The most recent slide occurred in February after record-setting rains fell across the region. Altogether, there are four slide areas now under repair.
The mess has motorists bouncing around a temporary detour while crews work.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation initially hoped to finish repairs by summer, but weather and other setbacks have delayed progress.
TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said portions of the road have continued to collapse amid the ongoing work.
It's just the latest in a string of attempts over the decades to stop the mountain from moving.
In 2013, TDOT launched an ambitious, $909,000 "soil-nailing" project that used long, hollow tubes as long as 50 feet grouted into place to stabilize parts of a two-mile section of the highway between the communities of Riverside and Guild.
As the project continued that fall, lifelong residents said the mountain pays no attention to human plans and predicted it would keep moving around at will.
Then in mid-December 2018, TDOT started work again after major slide started at the site where the detour road is now.
"TDOT began excavation, but the permanent soil nail repair work never began because of direct conflict with fiber-optic lines that would have been damaged by the soil nailing," Flynn said. "While utilities were relocating, other portions of the road started sliding and settling. Our soil nail contractor mobilized out and work stopped until we could determine the extent of the problem."
And then the rains came in February.
Flynn said geotechnical engineers visited the site several times since November and determined water drainage is the main problem, noting there are springs above and under the road.
Fixing the highway has been costly endeavor over the years.
"Between January 2014 and January 2018, our maintenance forces have spent approximately $100,000 on activities such as in-house resurfacing, manual spot patching, milling, cleaning and reshaping ditches, slide and settlement repair and drainage structure repair," Flynn said. Add to that a paving project in October 2013 that cost $910,000, another in September 2014 that cost $925,000 and the tally nears $2 million.
So after years of repairs and millions of dollars in fixes, the state says it's time to fix the problem for good.
"We have had to overlay this section of road with asphalt time and time again for as long as anyone can remember due to movement caused by geological conditions," Flynn said in an email. "But it has come to the point to where that is no longer an option and we need to look to stabilize the slides with a geotechnical solution and see what options are available to handle the water that makes the problem that much worse."
The agency is hoping have a plan underway in May.
"We are proposing a series of soil nail walls and drains at each slide. Each site is unique, so the repairs will be different at each location," she said.
Only time will tell if it will hold the mountain.
After all these years, it might seem logical that TDOT engineers would hate the mountain as much as it hates the road, but Flynn says that's not so.
"One of our engineers said — perhaps sarcastically — this: 'Engineers love to solve problems; this is one that is very challenging, so, yes, TDOT engineers like Aetna Mountain and the geology of this part of the Tennessee River Valley,'" she said.
Drivers rarely show much understanding or patience when it comes road work, their expensive cars and valuable time, and TDOT folks regularly get an earful.
"Our director's administrative assistant got cussed out this morning about 41," Flynn said Wednesday. "Some guy was screaming at her to 'fix the — — road!'"
She, along with the rest of TDOT's local employees, already had a trying week with Monday's bridge railing problems at the Interstate 75/24 split.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.