The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Feds reopen plans for long-delayed 9-mile Foothills Parkway segment from Wears Valley to Gatlinburg near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Plans for new parkway segment were hatched long ago; project would also include improvements to Wears Valley park entrance

Just a few years after the "Missing Link" of the Foothills Parkway was finally finished following decades-long delays, the National Park Service now has its sights set on constructing a new 10-mile section of parkway on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that would extend from Wears Valley to the heavily traveled Gatlinburg Spur.

The leg of the roadway has long been included in a plan for full completion of the parkway. About 30 miles have been completed from Tallassee, Tennessee to Wears Valley. This section would extend from the current parkway terminus in Wears Valley to the Gatlinburg Spur near Pigeon Forge.

Park officials said in a press release announcing the opening of the project's public comment period that the unfinished section is the only stretch of incomplete, congressionally approved roadway in the U.S. 

The new section cut through the mountains would ostensibly allow travelers to bypass the crowded Pigeon Forge commercial strip en route to Gatlinburg or the Sugarlands area of the park near the over-mountain section of U.S. 441 to Cherokee, North Carolina.

Much of the parkway's corridor beyond the actual road, however, will preserve native forests, or provide good opportunities for land acquisition by nonprofit groups or individuals in the name of conservation and protection of the parkway's viewshed.

The plan also includes a reroute and improvement of the narrow road that enters the national park at Metcalf Bottoms, which includes an infamous one-lane bridge and on occasion has caused things to get real in the picnic area.

This story will be updated, but in the meantime here's the full statement on both projects from the National Park Service: 

"The National Park Service (NPS) is seeking public input concerning the proposed construction of the next section of the Foothills Parkway and access improvements between Wears Valley and the Metcalf Bottoms area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A virtual public meeting will be held on October 14 and comments may be submitted through from October 1 through October 31. 

The new proposed Foothills Parkway section, 8D, would extend the parkway for 9.8 miles from Wears Valley to the Spur near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. This proposed action would provide direct access to one of the primary entrances to the park. In addition, the NPS is seeking comments about developing better access to the Metcalf Bottoms area to address safety concerns along Wear Cove Gap Road, improve the overall visitor experience, and protect park resources. Both these efforts could alleviate existing and future motor vehicle congestion to complement overall visitor access and traffic flow on the Tennessee side of the Park. 

“We are pleased to offer this opportunity to inform the public about the planning process and to receive input on these important projects,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “With growing visitation trends, considering these improvements is imperative in helping assure safe vehicle access to the park.”  

The civic engagement public comment period for the proposed projects is open from October 1 through October 31 and includes opportunities to submit written comments and participate in a virtual public meeting. The information obtained during this civic engagement period will be used to identify and refine the design elements and alternatives under consideration. 

A virtual public meeting to discuss the proposed projects and answer any questions about the process will take place on Thursday, October 14, from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (ET). During the first 30 minutes of the meeting, the NPS will present an overview of the proposed actions with the remainder of the meeting reserved for a question-and-answer session.  

Participants are advised to join the meeting five to ten minutes early to test audio and internet connections. Additionally, participants are welcome to call in on listen-only mode, and not view the presentation, by dialing (312) 626-6799 and entering Webinar ID 856 4513 5682.  

The NPS will also accept written comments regarding the proposed projects online or by postal mail. Comments may be submitted:

  • Online (the preferred method) at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/Section8D. Select “Open for Comment” on the left menu bar, open the Foothills Parkway Section 8D/Metcalf Bottoms Newsletter folder, and click on the green “Comment Now” button to access the online commenting form; or 
  • By Postal Mail at: 
    • Great Smoky Mountains National Park 
    • Section 8D/Metcalf Access Civic Engagement 
    • 107 Park Headquarters Rd. 
    • Gatlinburg, TN 37738 

Written comments on the proposed projects must be submitted online or be postmarked by October 31, 2021 to be considered.  

For more information about the proposed Foothills Parkway Section 8D/Metcalf Bottoms Access Improvement projects, including public meeting details, virtual long-in instructions and more, visit the planning website at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/Section8D."

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  • At least $35 million headed to Smokies for southern Foothills Parkway overhauls and maintenance facilities improvements
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    grsm_terrain_features.jpgThe crest of the Smokies and its peaks are shown from Look Rock on the Foothills Parkway.  National Park Service

    Southern stretch of Foothills Parkway to get $33 million overhaul

    The National Park Service will repave and improve the entire southern stretch of Foothills Parkway and design a replacement of the outdated maintenance facilities at Sugarlands thanks to funding from the Great American Outdoors Act.

    Both projects will cost a combined $40 million and be paid for via a foundation established as part of the overall legislation passed by Congress in 2020. 

    The Department of the Interior will spend a total of $1.6 billion from the Legacy Restoration Fund this year alone as part of a long-range goal to improve infrastructure and catch up on maintenance needs in national parks and other federally managed lands, according to a release. National public lands across the country, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have long faced maintenance deficits totaling billions of dollars. 

    The Foothills Parkway and Sugarlands work is one of 165 deferred maintenance projects that will be funded this year. Infrastructure improvements are also planned for sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park.

    The $33.6 million in planned improvements to the parkway between Walland and Tallassee (from mile marker 55 to 72) will include enhanced safety features and milling and replacement of the pavement.

    “The road rehabilitation will include pullouts and parking areas, replacing steel backed timber guardrail, and repair, reconstruction and repointing of stone masonry bridge parapet walls and the walls along Look Rock Overlook,” according to interior department documents.

    “Other work will include removing and resetting stone curb, replacing/repairing of the drainage structures, stabilizing roadside ditches, overlaying or reconstructing paved waterways, stabilizing and reseeding the shoulder, installing pavement markings, replacing regulatory and NPS signs, and constructing ramps with curb cuts to provide access to interpretive panels and to meet federal accessibility guidelines.”

    “The work proposed in this project would reduce the hazards and improve safety for park visitors and employees,” according to the data sheet. 

    The Legacy Restoration Fund will also cover the $3.5 million cost of a design/build plan to improve and update the expansive and deteriorating maintenance yard at Sugarlands.

    “The buildings, driveways, and parking areas associated with the maintenance yard have not been renovated or rehabilitated in decades,” according to a data sheet.

    “There are safety hazards, inadequate space or capacity for park maintenance and operations personnel, and facilities that are entirely insufficient for essential park operations and maintenance. The condition of many buildings is so poor that replacement and disposal is likely the only practical option. This project will complete predesign project programming and budgeting and develop a Design Build RFP for the rehabilitation or replacement of facilities and associated utilities, parking, and grounds.” 

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials did not immediately respond to an email requesting additional information on possible future projects and to what extent national infrastructure plans proposed by the Biden administration might benefit the park, which is the most-visited in the nation.

    Here’s a link to the full Department of the Interior National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund Fund release. Here are the Foothills Parkway and Sugarlands maintenance yard project data sheets.