frank_talk (2006-39)

At What Cost?

Our history of expensive re-dos when it comes to roadways

by Frank Cagle

It was an expensive proposition to put Interstate 40 through Knoxville, so the decision was made to save a little money. Going west out into the boondocks, little off-ramps were constructed to handle the sparse local traffic instead of doing a cloverleaf. After all, who could foresee an interstate highway might prompt development in cow pastures south of Cedar Bluff Road?

For the past 25 years, the state has spent, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars re-doing interstate exits in Knoxville trying to solve traffic snarls from Malfunction Junction to the Pellissippi Parkway. Out west the re-dos have been through expensive commercial developments around the interstates rather than the little county roads that existed when I-40 was constructed. These expensive re-dos resulted from complaints of business and residential taxpayers trying to cope with traffic gridlock on a daily basis.

The decision has been made to run an interstate by-pass from Interstate 75, north of Knoxville, to the I-40/I-75 split west of Watt Road. The route selected is through Hardin Valley. Don’t let anyone kid you. Route selections for interstate highways are political decisions. Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) engineers have to make up the justifications after the fact. (Why does I-40 go smack through the middle of downtown Knoxville?) Rather than take the by-pass through Anderson and Roane counties the by-pass will be closer in, skirting Knox County. One of the reasons the Knoxville business community and much of its political leadership lobbied to put the parkway inside Knox County was a succession of interstate exits leading to subdivisions, shopping centers and franchise restaurants generating millions in sales tax revenue and increased property taxes. All these revenues would accrue to Knox County.

(For example: It would be interesting to know how much additional property tax and sales tax and hotel tax revenue has been generated for Knoxville given the developments Oliver Smith has put at the Strawberry Plains Pike exit on I-40 east of town. Cracker Barrel, Puleo’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, hamburger franchises, truck stops and hotels have appeared within the last six to eight years.)

The immediate payoff in revenue-producing interstate exits in Hardin Valley has been deferred, however. In order to quiet some of the opposition to the Orange route, it has been announced that it will be a limited access highway with only two interchanges in 30 miles. I also have no doubt that TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely is sincere in his plans for minimizing the impact of the highway on the surrounding countryside.

Given two interstate exits on the Parkway, does anyone think development will stop in Hardin Valley? Do you suspect a new high school (and a sewer line) and the availability of land for subdivisions will continue to drive development? What about nearby Oak Ridge jobs as an incentive?

The parkway will someday be completed. Development will have continued apace. At what point do angry taxpayers coping with traffic gridlock on a daily basis force the construction of additional interstate exits? Will residents of Hardin Valley be content to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a two-lane road to the Pellissippi Parkway intersection to go anywhere?

Knox County Commission needs to start putting money aside: plan on four-laning Yarnell Road, Campbell Station Road, Solway Road and Hardin Valley Road for starters.

I have always believed a true by-pass should be further out in order to ensure it stays a by-pass. Look at the recently completed I-840, which cuts off I-40 at Lebanon and connects to Interstate 65 south of Nashville. There isn’t even a gasoline station on the route—yet. It is about 35 to 50 miles from the Nashville city limits.

The residents of Hardin Valley have made their feeling clear over the years – they don’t want the parkway -- but what about the rest of the county? It is certainly true continued development will match the rest of West Knox County in generating additional taxes; and where houses go, commercial development follows. More sales tax, more property tax.

But these additional revenues will come slowly and with a cost. Those curvy two-lane roads will have to be upgraded. The school in Hardin Valley is being constructed to handle current demand—what happens when hundreds of additional homes are constructed in the neighborhood?

The arguments against putting the by-pass farther out, in Anderson and Roane counties, are that it would cost more and the rarely acknowledged belief that Knox County will benefit economically from having it. I don’t think either of these suppositions will hold up over time.

The arguments we made 10 years ago about this project are still valid. But one doubts anyone will listen any more today than they did then.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .