Senator Lamar Alexander on Friday praised employees and volunteers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for their work in welcoming a record 11,421,203 visitors to the park in 2018, including more than 200,000 visitors in November and December who came to experience the new section of the Foothills Parkway.
“Documentarian Ken Burns said the national parks are ‘America’s best idea,’ so the Great Smoky Mountains National Park must be ‘America’s very best idea’ because each year it attracts nearly twice the visitors of any other national park – and last year it broke its own record with nearly 11.5 million visitors,” Senator Alexander said. “According to the park, the increase is due to the opening of the new section of the Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley – which is now ‘one of the prettiest drives in America.’ The scene is so magnificent that it surprises even those of us who have grown up admiring the Smokies.
Since the new section of the parkway opened in November, more than 200,000 visitors have witnessed firsthand how picturesque the drive really is.
“Those of us lucky enough to grow up and live near the park feel like we own it because our families once did, or we have adopted it as a home. We are proud that we gave this park to the country for others to enjoy – and we are grateful for the park’s dedicated employees and nearly 2,850 volunteers who make that privilege possible. This year, the park employees and volunteers -- who donated over 104,023 hours of service – had a busy year and deserve a lot of credit.”
The Foothills Parkway has been a priority for Alexander since he was governor in the 1980’s and the state Department of Transportation took the lead on a section of the parkway between Carrs Creek and Wears Valley. As a U.S. senator, he included $17.5 million for the parkway construction in the 2005 federal highway bill. Since then, he worked with his colleagues in Congress to help provide the funding necessary to complete the “missing link” – a 1.65 mile segment of the new 16-mile section comprised of nine bridges – and open this section of the parkway to the public. In 2016, the Tennessee Department of Transportation submitted a grant application for federal funds to complete this 16-mile section of the Foothills Parkway.
Senator Alexander urged the Department to approve the $10 million TIGER grant request, which it did on July 26, 2016. The state of Tennessee committed an additional $15 million in funding to complete the project. The National Park Service Federal Lands Transportation Program provided the remaining funding necessary to finish the 16 miles. Senator Alexander attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the newly opened 16-mile section of the Foothills Parkway on Nov. 9.