The state is ready to proceed with plans to build the new Sligo bridge but can't move on the project until a disagreement over right of way acquisition is resolved.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation, which has been in negotiations with the Corps of Engineers and its lessee Sligo Marina, recently made another offer to purchase right of way for the bridge and is now waiting for a response. An answer is expected by the end of the month. Terms of the offer have apparently not been publicly disclosed.
As WJLE first reported on December 29, TDOT had hoped to have the new Sligo bridge project ready for bid letting by now.
Although the Corps is the only property owner involved, TDOT apparently has to take into consideration concerns of Sligo Marina, which is located next to Sligo bridge.
According to TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges, one of the major concerns is that the marina owners want the state to pay for "potential loss of business"to them during the construction of the bridge. The problem is the state cannot legally pay for those types of damages.
In a telephone interview with WJLE in December, Degges said this has been the primary sticking point in the negotiations. "The Corps of Engineers has leased this property to a lessee (Sligo Marina). They're wanting to be paid for some things. In particular, he (lessee) wants to be paid for some potential loss of business due to loss of some of his parking and the impact of construction. Under state law in Tennessee, we (TDOT) are prohibited from paying those types of damages. So since we're kind of in a disagreement," said Degges.
State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver has weighed in on the issue saying, in an interview on WJLE Friday morning February 10, she is concerned that the bridge project is being delayed. "When we noticed that the (bid) let wasn't taking place, I just happened to call and say ‘okay what's the deal'?. I had not known there was actually some meetings with the Corps and the owners of the marina and their lawyers. So there were some back and forth offers being made. Apparently, the problem is that the owners of the marina fear that they are going to lose business while this bridge is being constructed. TDOT has already appropriated two million dollars, and they didn't have to do that, to build a retaining wall to keep those (marina) parking places they were worried about. The bridge will be built (a few feet away from) the old existing bridge so there is still going to be ample space to maneuver. Plus, they will be doing the heaviest construction during the winter months when the marina won't have as much traffic," said Representative Weaver.
Normally, when an agreement cannot be reached on right of way acquisition, the state can resort to imminent domain proceedings. But in this case, condemnation is not an option because the state cannot condemn federal property.
"Our process is, and this is all in state law, that for any typical project we do an appraisal," said Degges. " We make an offer and if the property owner thinks it's a fair price then we buy the property. If they don't think that the price is fair, it goes to the attorney general's office for condemnation. Probably about 75% of the property we buy in a given year, we negotiate and people negotiate with us. About 25% of what we buy goes through the condemnation proceedings. There's nothing bad about condemnation. It's just that's the process used to make sure that people have the ability to feel that they're getting the appropriate value for their real estate. In this particular case, since the property is owned by the Corps of Engineers, the United States government has sovereign immunity over the state of Tennessee. In other words, we cannot condemn the federal government. So since we're kind of in a disagreement, the question is can we condemn the property? The Corps of Engineers has determined that we cannot condemn their lessee. So that's kind of got us in a situation here. Not only is the project contingent on us getting the right of way, but the Corps of Engineers also issues us water quality permits. So we can't finish up the permitting process nor can we get the right of way to actually build the project until the issue is resolved," said Degges.
Representative Weaver said it isn't right for any business to hold a road or bridge project "hostage" in this manner. "Any business, whether you're having a highway built in front of you or a bridge, its maybe going to be a little inconvenient for you. That's just a part of life. What a marina or any business cannot do is hold the Department of Transportation hostage and say ‘well I'm not going to let you do this (build a bridge) because I'm going to miss "x" amount of money in business. That is unconstitutional. But if something like that could proceed then its almost as ludicrous to say ‘okay now that the bridge is done or now that the new road is in, you as a business now need to pay the Department of Transportation for all the new business and the increased traffic you will get'. That's not going to happen," she said.
According to Representative Weaver, if the stalemate continues the bridge project, which has already been funded in the state budget, could be delayed another year. She added that further delays could also impact the Corps' decision on whether to renew Sligo Marina's lease, which comes up for renewal next year. "The Corps is involved because of the land where the marina is. We don't foresee this but the worst case scenario would be if they can't come up with any agreement, which would be unfortunate for everybody, then in 2013 the (marina's) lease is up for renewal. The Corps could deny the lease. If that were to happen then they (marina) would lose and we lose because it would take another year to get that (bridge project) going. Plus the two years it would take to build the bridge. So everybody would lose out on that. I don't want that to happen. This bridge is vital. It needs to be moving along. We have the money budgeted for it and we need to proceed for the good of everyone concerned. I'm hoping they'll see this and move forward," said Representative Weaver.
The Sligo project, which was funded in the 2011-12 state budget, calls for replacement of the existing overhead truss bridge which is structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. The new bridge will be located a few feet to the north of the existing bridge, which will remain open to traffic during construction. The new bridge will be a continuous welded plate girder design with a composite concrete deck slab and will be 1,545 feet in length. The project typical section is two-12 foot lanes with 10 foot shoulders. The total estimated cost of the project including engineering, right of way, and construction is $31-million.
"We're going to build what we call a steel plate girder bridge with a concrete deck," said Degges. " Right now, the bridge is a truss. The truss has quite a bit of age on it. I believe it's right at 80 years old. The steel of that vintage, when it starts to deteriorate, deteriorates pretty fast. So its time for us to put a new bridge in there. The bridge is somewhat narrow. The new bridge we're going to put in here will have twelve foot lanes and ten foot shoulders. It will be what most people would consider a traditional bridge in that the beams of this bridge will be under the deck. One of the challenges here is that the water is over one hundred feet deep at this location which makes the construction of the bridge somewhat more challenging. Just think about trying to pour concrete one hundred feet under water. Its a pretty tough proposition. We don't have a whole lot of that type of work in Tennessee, but we do have some. We'll build the new bridge adjacent to the existing bridge. It's a vital artery for this part of the state of Tennessee. DeKalb County is very interested in this project. This county is split by the river and transportation is a key component of the economy there. So we want to make sure we get this bridge replaced before we have to do any additional repair work to the bridge," added Degges.