TDOT sets new timeline for Henley Bridge

TDOT sets new timeline for Henley Bridge; bridge to open to traffic Feb. 2014

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"We know that this is unacceptable to the community," TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said. "We know that this is unacceptable to the community," TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said.

6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - The Tennessee Department of Transportation held a news conference Monday morning to update the public about the progress of construction on the Henley Bridge in downtown Knoxville.

TDOT Commissioner John Schroer announced that the new date for reopening the bridge to traffic is now Feb. 28, 2014. The initial date was set for June 30 of this year.

"Our projection was optimistic," Schroer said. "We didn't know whether there would be issues within the columns."

The bridge is now set to reopen to motorists next February, with all work on the bridge to be complete by early June.

Schroer said the delay was due to a weakness that workers found in three piers of the bridge support. The work was not initially anticipated as part of the construction project and was only discovered in December.

TDOT said the deterioration could not be seen until it was exposed during the repair process.

Schroer spoke to the concerns of many South Knoxville residents and business owners about the impacts of the delay.

"We know that this is unacceptable to the community," he said. "We know what a terrible hardship this is for them."

The Henley Bridge is more than 80 years old. TDOT officials said that when the rehabilitation project is complete, another 50 years is expected to be added to the life of the bridge.

But small businesses in South Knoxville say that's of little comfort when they are the ones stuck with an incomplete pathway to their shops.

"We get a lot of complaints, people trying to get here in convoluted alternate routes," said Bill Tilson, owner of Comic Exchange.

He says the delays are hurting his bottom line.

"The random drop-in foot traffic has definitely gone down. We've seen a lot fewer people, 'Oh, I was just stopping by, so I dropped in,'" he said.

It's a problem that TDOT says it never anticipated businesses in South Knoxville having to deal with for so long.

"We didn't know what the extent of it would be," Schroer said of unanticipated problems on the project.

Now that TDOT knows what repairs are needed, the plan is to build new pier supports within the hollow concrete structures that currently support the bridge.

The cost of the additional repairs will raise the total cost of the project by $6 million, bringing the total cost of the project to just under $32 million.

If contractor Britton Bridge does not finish the appropriate work to reopen the bridge by the February date, they face a $1,000 per day penalty from TDOT.

Community group Bridges to Justice also spoke at the news conference, questioning the safety of the project, given the death of two workers.

Group members spoke out against contractor Britton Bridge, claiming the contractor pressured workers to finish the job and created an unsafe working environment in the process.

"We don't believe a culture of safety exists on the bridge today," said John Stewart, a member of the group. "That means the present workers are in danger, a great deal of money has been spent and wasted because, as you can see, the bridge is nowhere near to being finished."

City and county leaders also say they are disappointed with the extended delay on the bridge and worry about the economic impacts of it being closed another eight months beyond schedule.

"What's going to end up happening, I'm afraid, is losing all those small businesses and somebody is going to come in, the vultures are circling already, and they'll pick up the property at a bargain and we'll replace all those good mom and pops businesses locally-owned," said Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett.

"I am extremely disappointed that the Henley Bridge opening will be delayed, and I continue to be very concerned about the impact on Chapman Highway businesses and South Knoxville residents," said Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, a South Knoxville resident herself. "I appreciate Commissioner Schroer's meeting with me and Mayor Burchett to explain why this delay is necessary."

Mayor Burchett says a priority for him right now is to remind the public about those small businesses just across the Henley Bridge.

He says he plans to hold the next cash mob in South Knoxville again to help keep them afloat.

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