The new Sligo Bridge is open to traffic several months before the completion deadline.
While an official ribbon cutting will be held this fall, the first vehicle crossed the new structure at 12:33 p.m. Saturday after a little more than two years of construction, with County Mayor Tim Stribling there to witness the occasion.
"It's been a long time coming," the mayor said. "There's a lot of history with the old bridge and people hate to see it go, but with progress comes some adjustment. The old bridge has been a part of DeKalb County for years, but we have to make improvements to keep people safe and allow traffic to flow better by cutting out some dangerous curves. People will get used to this and there will eventually be history with the new bridge."
Larry Langford, Operations Technician for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said that while there were some loose ends to tie up, the bridge is ready to travel.
"We've been working on this bridge project since May, 2013 and we've finally gotten the bridge complete. We have turned traffic across the new bridge and the new alignment on State Route 26 (Highway 70)," Langford said. "We still have some painting to do, and a little paving on each end, but the structure is finished. We have to paint the piers and columns, and we still have to paint the railing. The top of the rail and the traffic face will be painted white, and the rest of the bridge will be painted a mountain gray. We can't paint the railing until we get our paving done. We still have to do some grade work on each end of the bridge, and we have to do our final coat of topping on our paving. Of course we still have to pave the shoulders. That should all be done within the next two to three months."
Drivers are still warned to be cautious in the area of the bridge until the final work is done.
Meanwhile, workers began demolition of the old bridge this week. We hope to start the demolition of the old bridge Monday," Langford said. "They won't actually blast it down Monday, but they will start doing some preparation. A lot of stuff has to happen before they start to shoot portions of the bridge down. When they shoot it down, if they do it like bridges I have seen done in the past, they will take the concrete deck off first, and possibly take some of the floor beams out of it so it is still structurally sound. Anything they can take out without it being in the water, naturally they want to do that. But they will shoot it up kind of in pieces, and when it falls in the water they will retrieve it out. They will put the pieces on barges and ship it out to the Highland Trail boat ramp (near Riverwatch), where it will be loaded on trucks and disposed of," Langford informed.
The upper part of the concrete piers will be blasted into the water.
"They will shoot the piers down into the water but not all the way to the bottom of the lake," Langford said. "The Corps will do a final sonar of the bottom of the lake and anything that is above elevation 600 feet above sea level has to be removed. The water is now around 637 feet elevation, so the concrete piers will actually remain in the water. They won't shoot them out all the way to the bottom of the lake."
A portion of the old highway on the east side of the new bridge will retained as an access road for utilities, but will be closed to the public, shutting off access to the old rock quarry. Langford said the road will be gated.
"We will have "No Parking" signs posted on both sides of the road, and the access of going down to the swimming area that people have used for years is being cut off. There will not be any more access down there to it," said Langford.
The entrance to Sligo Marina will also look a bit different.
"When we get completely done with the new alignment going down to the marina it will actually kind of go over against the bluff," Langford said. "We don’t have it constructed, yet but when we get it complete it will go over against the bluff, and that sharp curve won't be nearly as bad. There will also be some (marina) parking on top when we get that completed. There's still a lot of work yet to do cosmetically on that side. It will change a lot in the next couple of months."
A new boat ramp will be built at Highland Trail, and the parking lot will be repaved and enlarged. The county road from the ramp will also be repaved to Highway 70. The county will pay for striping the parking area according to the Corps of Engineers’ requirements.
Langford credited the contractors for getting the $39.2 million job, required to be done by the end of June, 2016, done so far ahead of schedule.
"We’ve had two really good contractors here, Massman Construction out of Kansas City, Missouri is the prime contractor on this job. The main sub-contractor is Highways Inc. They’re out of Cookeville, and they’ve actually done the grading on each end. They are a very efficient company, and they’ve been in business for a long time. They’ve done a really good job of moving everything along. Massman Construction mainly focused on the bridge. Everything just really went well for the whole project," Langford concluded.