The new Tennessee welcome center is located on I-26 (mile marker 5.8), between the Wilcox Drive and Rock Springs Road exits. Since September 2011, Charles Blalock and Sons of Sevierville has been working on the first phase of the project — site and roadway work and the construction of a new bridge over I-26.
The bridge was completed last fall, with the roadway and paving work done earlier this year. Since then crews have been wrapping up on some minor items, such as concrete work, signs, light poles and guardrails.
A late revision to the project — the addition of a detention basin at Pond Springs Road — pushed the project back by several months.
According to TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi the only work remaining in phase one is to establish vegetation in several areas along with some slope stabilization where the eastbound ramp takes off to the access road loop.
“We’re awaiting (Federal Highway Administration) approval for this to be done,” Nagi said. “The work will be in close proximity to the ramp where it connects to the travel lanes, so that’s why the signs have not been removed.”
The construction of the actual welcome center building will be under a separate contract. Nagi said the building plans have been approved by the State Building Commission and the FHWA.
TDOT could advertise the construction by the end of July with a bid opening four weeks later. If that is the case, Nagi said construction would likely begin in mid- to late September. Construction would take seven to eight months to complete, Nagi said.
The original completion date for the roadway and bridge work was September 2012 and as that work was winding down, the next phase of the project — the construction of the actual building — was supposed to come online soon after.
The new welcome center will sit on a 20-acre site and will be similar in size and appearance to the one built in Unicoi County a few years ago. It will have approximately 50 spaces for vehicles, a couple for buses and 20 spots for tractor-trailers. The welcome center will allow access from both northbound and southbound lanes of traffic and the interchange will be a diamond type, similar to Exit 59 in Colonial Heights.
Including design work, construction and land acquisition, the total estimated cost of the project is $16.5 million. Money for the project came from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federally funded, economic development agency for the 13 Appalachian states.