You can't get there from here.
That punchline to an old joke is a very appropriate description of the intersection of Millertown Pike and I-640. What's at that intersection? One of Knoxville's largest malls. A Walmart. A Lowe's. A Cracker Barrel. Assorted chain restaurants that include O'Charley's, Applebee's, Texas Roadhouse.
What's significant about this intersection is that you can't get off I-640 if you are coming from North Knoxville. We've gotten so use to it that we have sort of come to ignore one of the most poorly designed interstate exits in America.
It occurred to me Christmas shopping. I was coming from Broadway and saw signs for the mall, Walmart, and Lowe's and thought I would stop in and maybe finish out my list. Then it occurred to me, as it always does, that if I wanted to visit any of these stores I would have had to get off at Washington Pike, a quarter mile back down the road. The only way to get back to the intersection and visit those stores would be to go to Interstate 40, go to the Rutledge Pike exit, go north, try and find Millertown Pike and eventually get there. What is the likelihood I would do that? None. The shopping impulse died.
I wonder how many potential shoppers at the businesses at that intersection have been similarly lost?
Of course you have to be aware of the signs directing you to these businesses. It's hard to see them over the foliage on both sides of the road.
And if you remember to get off at Washington Pike and get on the service road, it's a tricky proposition to get over to Knoxville Center Mall. You can take the wrong crossover road and be going the wrong way on a one way thoroughfare.
Okay, why does it matter and why should you care?
Well, there's the city and county sales tax revenue being lost. There is the fact that what should be a thriving mall has struggled in recent years.
The strong brands at the intersection do draw business. I suspect most of it comes from the other direction. Coming from I-40 there is an exit at the Walmart, Sam's Club, Knoxville Center complex. If you are determined to get to one of these businesses—you need something from Lowe's or Home Depot—you can. What is lost is the impulse shopper and also people who give up rather than try and negotiate the maze.
The state Department of Transportation is reportedly studying the mess and will come up with a new design that allows an exit at Millertown Pike. One does wonder why it has taken 20 years to get around to fixing the situation.
It's no coincidence that new stores, like Kohl's, Target, and such have been located in a new shopping complex at the Washington Pike exit. The Target moved out there from Broadway and located there rather than beside the mall. These stores are easier to get to from the more populous North Knoxville neighborhoods. The mall is surrounded by enough land for big-box store development, but it won't happen with the present exit.
The capital investment, the property taxes, and the sales tax at that section of I-640 is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The intersection needs to be fixed not only to reward the businesses and developers who have invested there, but it should be made more convenient for residents, coming from both directions.
But coming up with a new design is not enough. There needs to be a concerted effort to get the redesign to reality, under construction and finished. Transportation funds are tight statewide, but we have saved a good bit of money by not building the extension of the James White Parkway south to John Sevier Highway.
I know, I know. It's different pots. And we do need to improve traffic on Chapman Highway.
But fixing the I-640 exit, unlike the James White Parkway extension, should result in a payoff in increased business and increased sales taxes.