Let's Consider Our Options to Fix Alcoa Highway

A proposed Blount County bypass isn't the only solution

Whether ghosts are real is not as important as whether the living consent to be haunted. A road upgrade in the works since 1989 without fruition is haunted by the political heft of car dealerships no longer with us and by those who have perished on the dangerous road while planners dawdle. Last month, TDOT announced plans to build a five-mile bypass around the Airport Motor Mile, sparing a cemetery but killing a golf course.

In 1998 TDOT proposed a $25 million upgrade of the existing highway. By 2004 it had morphed into a $107 million bypass whose inflated price dropped it down the state's priority list. The project was reactivated this year, the price tag uncertain.

The initial plan would have created restricted-access lanes for through traffic and a frontage road for car lots and restaurants along the 2.33 miles between Pellissippi Parkway and the airport entrance. Left-turn lanes would have been replaced by flyover bridges and access ramps on the right. A similar approach is in the works elsewhere on Alcoa Highway, near Maloney Road and at Topside Road.

The state presented the initial plan at a public meeting in May 1998. Last week, Environmental Assessments written in 1998 and 2004 were made available, including public comments. Most businesses and citizens supported the 1998 plan, excepting a few with family buried at Sherwood Memorial Gardens, where northernmost graves already encroach on the highway's shoulder. Only two people suggested a bypass. The more common sentiment was "Build it now!"

City of Alcoa and airport officials requested several tweaks to the project that would improve safety or traffic flow and lower costs. They insisted on an early-completion bonus in the contract, noting that prolonged construction would risk business closures and reduce tax revenues. The city's key points were echoed by car dealerships, literally. Dozens of identical letters, most in the same all-caps font, were sent to Nashville on the various dealership letterheads.

Business owners worried that berms built for access to the flyovers would block a driver's view of signage and cost them customers (never mind the view from the flyovers). They suggested minimizing the height of these berms and repositioning them, but there was no mention of a bypass in their comments.

Over the next couple of years, however, the Blount Chamber of Commerce got behind the bypass idea and nixed upgrade plans. The eight-lane bypass now being proposed will cost at least $100 million more, an attempt to protect businesses now closed and revenues that were a fraction of that amount even in good times. It will plow straight through Pine Lakes golf course and pastureland for University of Tennessee cows.

Only three residences need to be moved to accommodate the bypass, but dozens of homes currently buffered by trees and open space will become close neighbors to the exhaust and noise of 60,000 vehicles per day.

None of these sacrifices is worth it. Flyovers and a frontage road are the right solution, and the whole stretch from Hunt Road to Singleton Station Road needs to be reworked. Properly staged, construction would cause minimal disruption, especially with Pellissippi Parkway now complete to Route 33. Blount residents can use those roads plus Cusick, Wright, Louisville and Topside roads to avoid construction bottlenecks.

Often an EA includes numerous alternatives, but all three written for this stretch of highway included a single build option and the null choice, "no build." Both the 2004 and 2010 assessments should have retained the 1998 approach. Whether the community prefers flyovers or a bypass, choices about the number and placement of interchanges should appear in the plan as alternatives as well.

By restricting the choices to just one, the state slowed this project down, and they estimate it will take six to seven years to build a bypass once a final decision is made. Tennessee's perpetual budget crunch could add further delays. We need a comprehensive EA that lays out all the options so the community can find the best choice and the state avoid a decision that will haunt us ever after.