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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Work continues on the U.S. Highway 64 bridge project over the Ocoee River on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.

Drivers headed east on U.S. Highway 64 to see the last of fall's colorful leaves this weekend in the southern Appalachians will pass by the state's new $12.6 million signature "gateway" bridge project as they cross over the internationally-known Ocoee River.

"Contract crews have nearly finished the grade work required for this project," Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Rae-Anne Bradley said in an email. "Beams are currently being set on the new bridge and should be complete by the end of November — hopefully sooner, if the weather cooperates."

The bridge is on schedule to be opened to traffic in spring 2022, she said.

Other ongoing work consists of moving sewer and water utilities from the old bridge to the new span and installation of steel girders, according to project updates. Daily lane closures are possible for the work during the week between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., but none are planned over the weekend.

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Ocoee River 'signature' bridge on track for spring 2022 finish

The project will replace the existing 546-foot long, six-span concrete T-beam bridge that has two 12-foot wide lanes, one in each direction, and one-foot-wide shoulders, according to TDOT. The old bridge was built in 1937 and is showing structural deterioration.

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The replacement is a three-span, 600-foot long steel I-beam structure. It 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. Crews also will adjust the bridge's alignment and approach between Hildebrand Road to the west and Welcome Valley Road to the east, Bradley said.

The stylistic new bridge is designed to serve as a gateway to the Ocoee region and features the Ocoee River emblem, rock finishes, an aesthetic bridge rail and lighting that will highlight travelers' entrance into the Ocoee River Gorge and Parksville and Ocoee lakes. The design-build team for the project consists of contractor Charles Blalock and Sons Inc. and designer Volkert, Inc., according to officials.

Phase 1 of the project includes construction of the new bridge on the new alignment and construction of new roadway approaches and side road tie-ins.

Phase 2 will consist of reconstruction of Welcome Valley Road and Hildebrand Road at the tie-in locations, shifting traffic to the new bridge and removal of the existing approaches to the old bridge.

Phase 3 will include final paving, striping and installation of signs, removal of the old bridge and construction of a maintenance road on the old piece of highway remaining after the bridge is removed, according to TDOT.

TIMELINE

Request for qualifications for design-build: September 2018

Short list 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

Estimated completion date: May 2022

Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation

Bradley said the approaches will be wide enough for future widening of that section of Highway 64 to four lanes.

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Two travel lanes will be open throughout the project with the exception of short-term lane closures to install the concrete spans and for demolition of the old bridge, according to TDOT. There will be no need for detours.

So far the work hasn't interfered with operations at the project's nearest neighbor, the Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner, said manager Madeleine Marratta. She said future road work on the approaches hasn't begun on the diner's side of the river.

Marratta said there were no problems when utilities have been moved and she'd heard no complaints from customers about the work since the new bridge and approaches are being constructed alongside the old one allowing the highway to remain open.

And works crews have offered a new supply of customers.

"I don't know if all them come to eat here, but it's parties of six," she said of the lunchtime crowd coming from the project.

Marratta seemed a little doubtful of the spring completion date with so much work still ahead.

"We shall see," she said with a laugh.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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