It’s no secret the Smoky Mountains became a refuge for millions during the pandemic. Park data shows 14 million visitors in 2021, about 70% of whom enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via the Gatlinburg Spur.
That increase in visitation, along with recent development along the Gatlinburg Spur, led park officials to look for ways to improve congestion and safety while protecting wildlife and preserving the road’s “parkway feeling.”
Now, four options have been identified and your input on those is requested.
The “Gatlinburg Spur Improvements Environmental Assessments” was released this month. The 99-page document details the potential effects of proposed improvements along the 4.2-mile Spur that runs between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg in Sevier County.
Some drivers may not realize the Spur is a section of the Foothills Parkway because unlike other sections, commercial traffic is allowed on this stretch of road. Part of the planning process for improving the roadway takes into consideration the Foothills Parkway Section 8D extension that will cross Wears Valley and connect with the Spur.
Park staff will present an overview of the environmental assessment during an open virtual meeting at 5 p.m. on Monday, May 16. Staff will answer questions afterward. Those interested in attending can learn how to join the meeting online.
The public has until Sunday, June 5 to provide feedback on the proposed changes.
The need for change was identified in a 2019 traffic study, specifically in regard to safety issues and traffic congestion. The park noted in the assessment that a 30% increase in visitors was seen between 2010 and 2019. It should be noted that was before the pandemic rush to the mountains. Sevier County population increased 9.3% during that same period – not including tourists.
“An increase in traffic and visitation is anticipated to continue in future years, based on the 2021 statistics for vehicles entering the Park,” said park officials in the assessment.
As for safety issues identified, the Park said they found 85% of people visiting during peak season often exceed the speed limit on the Spur by up to 10 miles per hour.
“Speeding motorist and bear/vehicle collisions along the Spur are common,” Park officials said in the assessment, noting that signs warning people of both bear crossings and the speed limit are recommended as part of the upgrades.
“The combination of high traffic volume, drivers with a lack of familiarity of the roadway, and high speeds increase the risk of motor vehicle collisions along the Spur,” the report states.
Possible effects of the improvements on climate are also noted in the report.
“Reduced congestion and improved levels of service could reduce carbon emissions from queuing vehicles,” the report states.
WHAT WON’T BE DONE
Traffic signals are not an option along the Spur, the report states, because of their “incompatibility with the parkway purpose and design, as well as potential impacts on congestion in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.”
The proposal also does not include permanent lighting fixtures, but some lighting for nighttime construction work is noted.
Other suggestions that will note be implemented include the installation of roundabouts (traffic circles), a regional subway system, shuttles, additional intersections, or widening the Spur.
“Many of these options are not compatible with the existing Spur constraints, such as limited right-of-way and topography, or with the Parkway design aesthetic, or did not meet the purpose and need in taking action for this EA,” it says in the assessment.
Other suggestions, such as a subway, shuttle, dedicated pedestrian facilities, or bike lanes may be considered in future planning efforts, park officials said.
MINIMIZING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS
NPS would take action to minimize impact to wildlife and protect cultural resources. Among those actions are:
- Conducting a tree and vegetation clearing in which any federally listed bats and nesting birds would be identified.
- Remove as few trees as possible while also using tree protection fencing, root pruning and prevent compaction of soil over root systems.
- Survey for any nesting bald eagles prior to commencing the project construction and follow all measures recommended by the 2007 National Bald Eagle Guidelines.
- Inspect for potential bat roosting prior to any bridge removal. If bats are found using the bridge, demolition work would be done between Nov. 15 and March 31, to avoid and minimize disturbance.
Work would be required to stop temporarily if cultural resources are inadvertently encountered during the project. No historic properties on the National Register of Historic Places are found in the project area. Federally listed and state-listed plant species are not expected to occur in the project area based on botany surveys conducted in April and August 2021. No in-water work or piers would be required for any of the bridge construction except for the potential removal of the existing Wiley Oakley Bridge.
The project area includes areas that are “suitable for roosting and foraging habitat” for two federally listed bats as well as two that are under review currently for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
The monarch butterfly is also a candidate and is noted as possibly appearing in the project area. However the lack of milkweed — a host for monarchs in the larval stage —was noted during the botanical survey.
THE FOUR OPTIONS
Federal agencies are required by law to explore a range of “reasonable” alternatives for addressing identified issues. So in the study, four alternatives for resolving safety and traffic congestions issues are outlined. Of these options, the second one is preferred by the National Park System.
Option 1. No action
Option 2. NPS Preferred Alternative and Proposed Action — This option includes corridor-wide improvements, such as:
- Curb and gutter treatments— to reduce shoulder drop-off issues and discourage visitors from parking along the Spur in undesignated locations.
- Pull-off areas —Up to 4 areas in flat locations that could accommodate 150 to 200-foot-long and 15-foot wide paved areas that would improve access for emergency vehicles and give disabled vehicles a place to pull safely off the main road.
- Rockfall mitigation — such as slope stabilization techniques and retaining walls
- Intelligent Transportation Systems (Speed monitoring and wildlife) — Solar powered signs placed at intervals to remind drivers of their speed and to be aware of bears crossing the roadways.
To help solve congestion issues, NPS is suggesting the following changes to the area:
- Reconfiguring the intersection of the Spur with Gum Stand Road/King Branch Road/Gnatty Branch Road to change the traffic flow direction on the bridge.
- Adding or extending existing accelerations lanes at the intersection of the Spur and Huskey Grove Road/ Flat Branch Road.
- Construct a flyover bridge at the intersection of the Spur and Wiley Oakley Drive, at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center. This would mean the removal the existing bridge.
“The Wiley Oakley Drive bridge is heavily used because of the location of the welcome center on one side and a private resort development on the other. Traffic backups on the bridge can be significant for motorists turning left or continuing straight,” the documents states.
The report cautions that the roadwork would result in lane shifts, shoulder closures and temporary single-lane closures, detours, changes to two-way traffic, and nighttime work.
This option was rated highest for temporary disturbance, and mid-level for permanent disturbance.
Option 3: The same corridor-wide improvements listed above, but with two contra-flow bridges instead of a flyover at Wiley Oakley Drive, creating intersections where vehicles could turn but could not continue straight. Each bridge would be about 1,400 feet north and south of the existing bridge. This option is rated the highest for permanent disturbance.
Option 4: The Park would restrict vehicles from making a left turn onto the existing bridge from the northbound Spur and would only allow traffic across the bridge one-way from the southbound Spur. Vehicles would also be restricted from crossing over the Spur when going to or from Westgate Resorts Road to the existing Wiley Oakley Drive bridge.
A possible multiuse trail for cyclists and pedestrians along the Spur, between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, is also being studied under a separate planning effort.
This story has been edited.