By Kendal Groner
As the Linear Trail Tunnel Project that will connect the Erwin Linear Trail to Fishery Park continues to make headway, officials say this moves the town one step closer to establishing the “Appalachian Loop” – a 15-mile trail system that will extend from Chestoa Park to Iron Mountain.
The current project to link the approximately 4-mile Erwin Linear Trail to Fishery Park has been discussed conceptually for almost 15 years and will create a safe and convenient link between two of the town’s major recreational assets.
“We’re all about creating community and livability, so pedestrian access and access to the natural elements is a major focus,” said Riki Forney, Public Works director. “The stopping place for it, it inhibits from connecting to the park, so it would have been a big safety issue to bring it up to the height of Harris Hollow Road and then connect it to the park.”
Funding for the project is coming from an $885,271 Transportations Alternatives Grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, with the Town of Erwin providing 20 percent in matching funds.
Back in March, the town accepted a bid from Summers-Taylor Construction to build the tunnel and enlisted the engineering services of Tysinger, Hampton & Partners, Inc.
Outdoor spaces such as the trail are extremely important to the taxpayers and community itself, according to Forney. He said that parks and recreation services are continually looking for accessible, family-friendly spaces.
“We have people come from all over the region to access our trail,” said Forney. “It’s a paved surface and more secluded. They just like the natural aspect of it, and it has a huge draw. For most of that four miles you are never really looking at safety issues and it has easy access to all municipal services, yet it is also far enough away to get to the outdoors.”
Gary Tysinger, project leader with Tysinger, Hampton & Partners, Inc., has been involved with the “Appalachian Loop” trail system project since the Erwin Linear Trail was first constructed over 20 years ago.
“The Erwin Linear Trail has been the most successful part of this,” said Tysinger. “The trail system itself is very unique.”
Tysinger noted that the trail itself is unlike many others in the area because it includes wooded areas, natural wetlands, ponds and passes through light industrial areas.
He recalls seeing the bridges that stretch across the trail’s wetlands being built, which he said was done by building upon the bridge itself without actually taking any machinery into the water.
“They haven’t spent as much as some cities have on the trail either,” Tysinger added about the project.
The Town of Unicoi’s plans for a connector trail and bike route fall right in line with the desire to see the entire 15-mile “Appalachian Loop” come to fruition. With the help of an Appalachian Regional Commission Power Grant that provides $300,000 in funding and requires about $130,000 in matching funds, the Town of Unicoi is looking to create a connector trail that runs from the Pinnacle Fire Tower trailhead and goes down to the Town of Unicoi Visitors Center and across the street to Maple Grove Restaurant. It would then connect to a bike trail that follows Unicoi Drive down to Erwin Town Hall.
The Linear Trail Tunnel project has progressed far enough to allow traffic back onto Harris Hollow Road, and Forney said Summers-Taylor is currently pouring all of the wing walls on the tunnel and backfilling the area.
“Summers-Taylor did an excellent job getting the road open earlier than projected and traffic is now able to move,” said Forney. “The tunnel timeline goes well into the fall and a lot of the stuff that’s left to do is off of the surface of the road.”
Along with grading the area for ADA handicap specifications, construction crews will be adding putting down an asphalt surface, installing guardrails, protective barriers and adding signage.
The next phase will be to include all of the utilities to add lighting to the tunnel.
“Summers-Taylor has done an excellent job with this project and we couldn’t be any happier,” Forney said. “Service provided by Tysinger-Hampton, engineering and surveying have been very impressive. We ran into an issue early on where they had to move some water lines for Erwin Utilities and my hat goes off to those guys because they were able to mobilize and do all that work without impacting the schedule of the project.”
Forney also expressed his gratitude for working with TDOT and said despite a few minor issues, such as running into the waterline, the project is ahead of schedule and set for a completion date in October.