NEWPORT, Tenn. — The westbound lanes of Interstate 40, a major trucking thoroughfare, were closed near the North Carolina state line on Tuesday after mud and rocks tumbled onto the highway in Cocke County in the early morning.
Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said another house-sized boulder was in a precarious position above the interstate and TDOT geotechnical personnel were checking how stable the situation was.
"We're not yet able to say when we can reopen the lanes," Doughty said.
All westbound traffic was being turned around at mile marker 451. Eastbound travel was not affected.
Doughty said the department was preparing to hire a contractor to remove the debris on an emergency basis — a process that allows rapid approval of the work. TDOT was working with North Carolina authorities on a detour. Westbound traffic was initially being routed onto Interstates 26 and 81 — a long detour through the Tri-Cities area of Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City.
A massive rock slide on the North Carolina side of the border in October 2009 closed the interstate in both directions for six months, causing economic hardship in the region and affecting visits to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
An Appalachian Regional Commission study estimated that 2010 slides on I-40 in Haywood County, N.C., and on U.S. 64 in the Ocoee River Gorge of southeastern Tennessee increased transportation costs in the region by $197 million. The study also showed revenue for some hotels, motels and inns dropped by up to 80 percent and some retail business fell by 90 percent.
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Trucking company Averitt Express, based in Cookeville, sees about 50 trucks moving through that area every day.
Spokesman Brad Brown said the company has computers in every vehicle and was able to immediately begin rerouting drivers. Company officials still are waiting to hear how long the interstate is expected to be blocked.
"Especially if it's going to be a long-term delay, we have contingency plans that allow us to change the way we route the freight," Brown said. "...The biggest factor for us is getting the freight to our customers as quickly as possible."
Brown said the previous rock slide resulted in "a significant cost" to the company.
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