Unbuilding Bridges, Re-routing Traffic and General Mayhem – or not!?!

“I’ve seen the bridge and the bridge is long
And they built it high and they built it strong
Strong enough to hold the weight of time
Long enough to leave some of us behind.”

“The Bridge” Lyrics by Bernie Taupin

Henley Street Bridge – Before D-Day

Henley Street Bridge on Christmas Day 2010
 About a year behind schedule, the Henley Street Bridge was closed yesterday for unbuilding and re-building. I took a few photographs last week just to remember how it looked which, I assume, will be the way it looks when it is finished since they are leaving the supports. I do think it is a pretty bridge, though I have no idea what the architects among us would say. I love the oval reflections in the water when the light is just right.

Henley Street Bridge, Christmas Day 2010

Henley Street Bridge, Christmas Day 2010

My parents tell me we crossed that bridge in 1964, though the memory escapes me. We lived in Mobile, Alabama and had visited the mountains on vacation. In 1983 my wife and I bought our first home in south Knoxville, so the bridge became part of our lives. It’s hard to imagine this part of the river without it. But even bridges get old, decrepit and in need of loving attention. Its time had apparently come.

Motorists experience a three minute wait to get to the Gay Street Bridge, January 3, 2011

Gay Street Bridge handles all three cars very well: Rush Hour January 3, 2011

So, what will happen next? Did grid lock result on Gay Street? Are cars still stranded on the South Knoxville bridge? The News Sentinel reported there were few, if any, problems this morning. I can say a little about what it was like around 5:30 this afternoon. After carrying my recycling to State street I walked up Gay to the bridge and you can see from the pictures: Not much happened. The traffic crossing the bridge driving south quickly disappeared on the other side. The cars waiting on Gay Street to get to the bridge backed up a little, but I’m not sure how much worse it was than usual at that time of day. It wasn’t that bad.

View South on Henley Street Bridge, January 3, 2010

I decided to see how much progress was made on day one of the two year project and I was impressed. The pavement is largely gone from the surface of the bridge. There were two cranes and about a half dozen people still working. A couple of them rode in the cool cage over the edge of the bridge. When I was a but a wee lad, what I wouldn’t have given for a job like that! I turned the other direction to look at traffic coming out Henley Street and, as you can see from the picture, there was very little. Hill street is open crossing Henley at the beginning of the bridge, so a few cars came and went from there. I was standing in the middle of the road when I took the picture, so that says something.

Men riding in cool cage suspended by crane – My turn, my turn!

So, if no one crossed the bridge and no problems were reported in the morning or afternoon traffic what does that mean? Things certainly might get a bit worse. Some people may not have worked today because of New Years and Knox County Schools were out. One thing it might mean is that the alternatives serve most people about as well as the Henley Street Bridge. That sets me to wondering what positive benefits might be derived from this two year period without our main bridge.

Henley Street at rush hour: 5:30, January 3, 2010

Some businesses on the alternate routes hope to benefit from increased traffic past their workplace. I also wonder if some people might discover that other routes have been better for them all along but they used the Henley Street Bridge out of habit. One person posting to the above story said he got to work more quickly using an alternate route. Some are hoping that alternative forms of transportation might get a boost. If anyone has considered carpooling, this would be a good time to try it.

What about the impact on downtown? I wondered if Gay Street would be impossible, but jaywalking appeared to be about as easy as usual when I crossed it around afternoon rush hour. I also wonder if some businesses along Gay Street might be helped from the exposure. Maybe someone will consider pizza at Dazzo’s or be reminded that the Bistro is still in business after all these years.

One thing that is clear: the horrific barrier between downtown proper and UT/Fort Sanders/World’s Fair Park will be greatly diminished for the next two years. Mr. Scott (I’ll introduce him below) likened crossing Henley to a game of Frogger. For people who are too young to remember life before Wii, it was a primitive computer game in which the object was to have your frog cross the street without being splashed across the simulated pavement. UT students who attempt to walk downtown, downtown residents who would like to walk to UT and people who are in town for a convention and would like to walk between the convention center and downtown do so at their own peril.

Yes, there is a pedestrian bridge. Sometimes I use it, but it feels like going around the world to get to the other side of the street. Depending on your starting point and destination, it is often very far out of the way. Basically, over the years we’ve created a canyon of high-speed traffic.

So, what can you do? Well, there is a voice crying in the wilderness who says he knows exactly what we can do. His name is George Scott and he’s been talking to anyone who would listen for quite some time now. His basic premise is that we’ll never have an opportunity like this again in our lifetime to do something significant with this barrier and integrate these portions of downtown. Basically he advocates re-routing through traffic, making a walkable boulevard of Henley Street which would carry only local traffic. He insists the costs would be low and as money is available, Henley Street could be developed to host businesses and the connection not only between the areas mentioned above, but also the south Knoxville waterfront could be further developed and exploited.

I’ll let him explain below. (If the video doesn’t display properly, you can see it here.)He gives contact information in the presentation if you are interested in discussing the idea further. At the least, his point that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do *something* resonates with me. If it is a bad idea, I need someone to help me see how that is so. Leave a comment or vote in the poll and let me know what you think.