ERWIN — Unicoi County officials are already seeing the results of Tuesday’s rock slide in Cocke County in the form of increased traffic along Interstate 26 and are urging travelers to take extra caution.
According to an Associated Press report, the westbound lanes of Interstate 40 near the North Carolina border were closed following the rock slide. The report also states that Tennessee Department of Transportation personnel are checking the stability of a house-sized boulder hovering above I-40.
All westbound traffic along I-40 is now being diverted to I-26. Unicoi County Emergency Management Director Ed Herndon said I-26 through Unicoi County is already realizing increased traffic along the interstate due to the detour.
“We’ve had people complaining that they had trouble getting on the interstate due to the amount of traffic coming through, and we’ve had complaints in the past about people driving erratically because they were lost on the interstate as well as off, and we’ve had a bunch of accidents. We’ve had fatalities in the past, too,” Herndon said.
Herndon said officials are wanting to get the word out about the increased traffic so local motorists are not taken by surprise and are hopeful motorists will be more careful when traveling I-26. He also said congestion has been encountered at westbound exits and he expects the work being conducted by TDOT to make I-40 safe to take several weeks.
Unicoi County is no stranger to the impacts of regional rock slides. Herndon said Tuesday’s slide is the “fourth or fifth” he’s dealt with as the county’s emergency management director. Prior to Tuesday’s rock slide, the most recent one that impacted Unicoi County occurred in North Carolina in October 2009 that also led to the closure of a portion of I-40. Officials at that time also urged caution due to increased traffic, with particular concern paid to traffic increases and speeding complaints on Tenn. Highway 81.
Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins said even without an increase in manpower within his department, the UCSD is prepared to address the impact of increased traffic in the county.
“Anytime you have an increase in traffic, you’re going to have more accidents, more roadside assistance and, of course, the possibility of more illegal substances coming through the county on Interstate 26,” Adkins said. “So we’re anticipating increases in those areas.”
While the increased traffic has officials asking motorists to take greater care when traveling, it has some local businesses seeing dollar signs. Or, at the very least, an increase in the number of folks stopping in to ask directions.
Chastity Keasling, manager of the Shell service station located on Jonesborough Road off I-26, said an increase in business has been typical with past rock slides. So far, this one has been no different, she said.
“When everybody came in asking directions, we knew what had happened,” she said.
Richard Poling, manager of the Huddle House located next to the Shell station, said patronage at the restaurant seems to have increased, but he is still unsure if it’s a direct result of the I-40 traffic being diverted through the county.
“It seems like it might be a little bit busier, but I don’t know if that’s it,” he said.
Further south in town, the Holiday Inn Express Hotel, located off I-26 on Temple Hill Road, has seen a bump in business since the rock slide, according to General Manager Margaret Roy.
Not only have more travelers been stopping in to ask directions, but Roy said there has also been an increase in the number of walk-in reservations for rooms. She said the October 2009 North Carolina rock slide followed the economic downturn and the increased business that resulted nearly compensated for fewer travelers due to the downturn.
Tuesday’s slide follows a slow winter season caused by fewer skiers booking rooms due to a lack of snow, Roy said. However, she said the hotel is already noticing a change.
“Because we were slow before, it’s easy to tell when there’s an uptick,” Roy said.