Troy Ray isn't from around these parts. But when he opened Dixon Machine Shop on Chapman Highway 10 years ago, and moved into a house next door, he thought he'd found a place to call home. His livelihood is nestled into a wooded area just south of Wal-Mart.
Then six years ago, he noticed some surveyors poking around his property. "Some guys were surveying my yard. They were the ones who told me about it. They told me they were building a highway through here," Ray says. He called the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and learned his property was actually where the south-bound off ramp would be for a road called the South Knoxville Boulevard. Boulevard is a bit of a misnomer—It's a divided highway with four lanes, limited access, with interstate-style on and off ramps and a 60-mph speed limit.
He didn't know it at the time, but Ray's home wasn't just standing in the way of bulldozers. It was standing in the path of some 40 years of engineering studies, traffic counts, environmental impact statements, legislative decrees, campaign promises and political battles. The proposal to link South Knoxville to the rest of the city with a major road has been around almost as long as the nation's interstate system. Pieces of the roadway have been built in an on-again, off-again way over the past 20 years.
Now, TDOT says it's finally going to finish the highway. Many local residents are glad, but others—including Knoxville's City Council—are pleading with state officials to take another look at the project. TDOT, meanwhile, has only dug in its heels.
Do assumptions and planning decisions made about South Knoxville decades ago still make sense? And what will it take to get TDOT to listen?
"The central issue has become...a dictatorial state agency forcing on local government decisions that ought to be made by the local government. It's an issue of democracy," says UT philosophy professor and South Knoxville resident John Nolt. "We've got a local government saying, 'wait,' and we've got TDOT going ahead."
Point of Origin
Ye Olde Steakhouse has sat on the side of a rocky, wooded hill in South Knoxville for 32 years. That's pretty old for a restaurant, but people keep coming here, packing the quaint wooden building on the side of Chapman Highway. Maybe it's the steaks or maybe it's the ambiance or maybe it's the friendly atmosphere.
Still, as old as the place is, it's not nearly as old as the plans for the South Knoxville Boulevard. When the restaurant opened in 1970, the plans had been on the books for at least a decade. Ye Olde sits just south of where TDOT proposes intersecting the highway with Chapman. (Although when Ye Olde opened, the intersection with Chapman was expected farther north.)
"This seems like the most unlikely place for a highway to come out, right between two mountains," says Nancy Ayers, one of the owners. "You would think this would be the safest place to have a restaurant. You would think."
The restaurant—run by Ayers and her brother, David King—would lose its front parking and rear exit to the new road. It'll make pulling into and leaving the restaurant a treacherous affair on busy weekend nights, they say.
The idea for the South Knoxville Boulevard is so old, it's hard to trace its precise origins. It probably dates to the ’50s when the interstate system was being designed.
State Sen. Ben Atchley—a longtime supporter of the road—remembers various community leaders pushing for it. "It was generated by civic leaders and business people in South Knoxville," he says. "Mostly, it was citizens soliciting the support of local officials. They all agreed it needed to be done."
One of main objectives was to create a third bridge over the Tennessee River, because it was thought that the Gay and Henley Street bridges were overburdened with traffic. (One plan from the ’70s reported that the Gay Street Bridge would eventually be closed to all but pedestrians, bicycles and emergency vehicles—a move that would have put Knoxville ahead of Chattanooga as far as innovative urban design goes.) Planners also wanted to create better access between South and North Knoxville. And connected to Interstate 40, the road was intended to be the main gateway to the Smoky Mountains and spur economic development south of the river. Development of Highway 66 in Sevier County has since decreased the demand for better access to the mountains via Chapman.
The 1964 Knoxville-Knox County Plan called for a new bridge, along with a four-lane divided arterial road running from Moody Avenue to Sevier Avenue to Island Home Avenue. North of the river, the road was supposed to cut through East Knoxville and connect with I-40 at Cherry Street.
In 1972, the plans got grander. Instead of a divided road (like Middlebrook Pike), planners said a six-lane freeway was needed.
The first concrete proposal was drawn up in 1977. At the time, engineers imagined it would be a panacea for the poor area. "If the proposed highway facility is constructed, a significant change in the social structure of the area can be expected. With proper controls over commercial development throughout the corridor, quality residential development will likely occur as an attractive alternative for new residents," says the environmental impact statement written at the time by Wilbur Smith and Associates.
Many continue to argue that the road will encourage economic development. Wes Stowers of Stowers Machine Corp., head of the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership's transportation committee, says infrastructure development is crucial for job growth. There is land in South Knoxville that could be developed for industrial or commercial use, but it's too difficult to get to, he says. Without access, he argues, companies will locate in other parts of the state.
"Economically, South Knox County is the most depressed region in our area...We're not creating any new jobs in South Knox County. About the only development to take place is in strip centers on Chapman Highway," Stowers says. "Yet the land is there."
(Stowers Machinery Corp. supplies construction equipment to contractors, including those who work on TDOT projects. Stowers says there's no conflict in his role as transportation committee chairman. His company doesn't depend on projects in Knoxville and this one is relatively small, he says. "From my company's perspective, if they build this road, fine. If they don't and build it in Greeneville, fine—it's all the same to us.")
Others disagree. They say roads create sprawl, not smart development. If built, they fear the road would cut South Knoxville in half, destroying neighborhoods and making it more difficult to get around. David King's daughter goes to school at South Doyle Middle School. The highway would cut across the back of the school. "Where once kids could walk, now I guess they'll have to take the bus," King says. "You've got to go way out of your way to get across that thing."
"It's not good transportation," says Nolt, who's also an environmental writer and activist. "It's going to benefit the road builders and the land speculators. And we just don't need more urban sprawl. The day of urban sprawl is over. To continue it out and then destroy so many neighborhoods—I don't see that that's going to be beneficial to the community."
Sputter, Lurch, Stall
In the ’70s, two routes were proposed for the road, which was estimated to save three minutes of commute time. Both alternatives would have connected with Chapman Highway at Longvale Road, near where Wal-Mart now stands.
But the plans stalled for a variety of reasons. Asked why the road has been so long in the making, Atchley is hard pressed to come up with an answer, perhaps because there have been so many reasons. "It takes time to build a new roadway. It's a state project and not a federal project. That may have had something to do with it."
East Knoxville residents fought the leg that would have stretched through their neighborhood, connecting the bridge with I-40 at Cherry Street. East Knoxville was still reeling from earlier Urban Renewal projects that dislocated many people and businesses.
So the plans were altered to connect the road with James White Parkway.
In 1979, the state funded several bridge projects, says Bill Sansom, who was then TDOT's commissioner. Although the new South Knoxville bridge wasn't originally part of the bill, Sansom asked the Legislature to include it, even though the road it would connect to was then uncertain and unfunded. "One of the things DOT had been concerned about was the Gay Street Bridge and Henley Street Bridge being in bad shape. At some point, you've got to be sure you can get across the river," he says. "In hindsight, maybe you'd have done something else with that money. But DOT looked at getting across the river as being important."
The bridge was completed in 1983, but with no major roads connecting to it, it was dubbed "the bridge to nowhere," and few people used it.
In 1986, the state Legislature approved Gov. Lamar Alexander's Better Roads Program, which raised the gas tax by 3 cents to finance some 300 road projects. Included in it was the South Knoxville Boulevard, specifically a four-lane from Moody Avenue to the new bridge, and another four-lane from Chapman to Moody. (And, strangely, the bridge was also specified, even though it had already been built.)
In the early ’90s, the road was constructed from Moody to the bridge. But the project south of Moody was scrapped because too many sinkholes made that leg too costly.
That's when "alternate D" and later "D-2" were drawn up. In TDOT speak, "the proposed alignment is a fully controlled facility consisting of four lanes divided by a depressed grassed median." The median will be 48 feet wide, with each of the four traffic lanes 12-feet wide. Inside and outside shoulders will measure 12 feet and 6 feet wide, respectively. The road would be 2.3 miles long and the speed limit 60 mph. TDOT expects to displace 29 families and one business, at a cost of more than $13 million. Building the road will cost somewhere between $32 and $36 million.
The road could easily handle 70,000 cars a day. (By comparison, the congested four-lane I-40 running through 4th and Gill handles about 90,000 cars a day.) In the year 2023, TDOT expects 24,000 to 29,000 cars will travel over the South Knoxville Boulevard each day.
It's those numbers that have both sides troubled about the future. Proponents of the project say the South Knoxville Boulevard is needed to relieve traffic on Chapman Highway. Bill Moore, TDOT's head planner, says that if the boulevard isn't built, Chapman will have 60,000 cars a day on it in 20 years. "That's just not acceptable on Chapman Highway," Moore says. Although projections for the completed South Knoxville Boulevard are about a third what the road could handle, Moore says, "We've never built one that didn't exceed our expectations."
But a lot of people take issue with those traffic estimates. "They've been projecting it for years, and it hasn't happened yet," says Karen Fletcher, a South Knoxville resident who is a member of South Knoxvillians Advocating Reasonable Development (or SKARD), a group that opposes the project.
"I run up and down Chapman Highway all day long," says Troy Ray. "There never is a time when you're sitting in traffic like you are out on Kingston Pike."
Traffic projections have fluctuated wildly. The 1964 Knoxville-Knox County Plan estimated 61,000 motorists would be driving over the Henley Bridge by 1982, and 52,500 on Chapman Highway. (Today it's about 45,000 on Henley north of the bridge and about 35,000 on Chapman, south of the bridge.) In the mid-’70s, TDOT estimated traffic along the South Knoxville Boulevard in 1995 (when it figured the thing would have already been built) at 51,400 cars a day at the South Knoxville Bridge, and 27,400 a day near the connection with Chapman Highway. But in the early ’90s, TDOT estimated 2005 traffic at about 15,400 cars a day on the bridge and 11,000 at Chapman, roughly a third of the original estimate.
Population in South Knoxville dropped from 21,360 in 1970 to 17,719 in 1990. The population grew by almost 800 people in the past decade, but the increase was all in one of South Knoxville's five census tracts—Tract 8, the area closest to downtown, along the river and east of Chapman, which the highway already serves. The other South Knoxville neighborhoods lost residents. (Population has grown in Sevier County, however, and many of those residents use Chapman Highway.)
Road critics say the accident rate isn't all that high compared to other parts of town. In 2001, there were no fatalities on Chapman Highway, and Kingston Pike and Clinton Highway had many more accidents, according to the Knoxville Police Department.
Traffic projections are partly guesswork, says Jeff Welch, executive director of the Transportation Planning Organization (formerly the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the group is made up of elected representatives from area municipalities and counties—including Mayor Victor Ashe and County Executive Tommy Schumpert—and recommends long-range road and transportation projects). "Thirty years ago it was easier to model trips because people tended to go from point A to point B—from home to work and from work to home," Welch says. "Now, people go from home to daycare to work to school to soccer practice to the store."
Projections are also difficult because planners don't know where development will take place. "We don't know where every Wal-Mart is going to be. To some extent, we can determine that through zoning, but zoning can change," Welch says.
Still, Welch doesn't see traffic or population decreasing along the Chapman corridor. And Chapman Highway probably won't be able to handle it, he says. If the boulevard isn't completed, he says, "you'd have to do some very significant improvements on Chapman Highway. But I still don't think you could handle 60,000 vehicles a day. It'd be like turning a Chapman Highway into an Alcoa Highway with traffic signals. You'd have serious gridlock."
Although the TPO supports finishing the boulevard, it's had some serious concerns about how TDOT plans to do it. For a decade, the organization has been asking the state to build a divided parkway rather than an expressway and to take the road all the way to John Sevier Highway, with a connection to Chapman. Although the parkway design would handle almost as much traffic, it would be cheaper to build and less disruptive, Welch says. The parkway plan would be still be a limited-access road, to prevent sprawl development. But it would follow the topography, meaning less excavation. The median would be 20 feet wide, rather than 48. The parkway would better accommodate bike trails and would be much narrower, for a milder impact on the neighborhoods it'll slice through. "I don't think we're going to have to come in in 20 or 30 years and add lanes," Welch says. "I don't think we're being shortsighted here."
SKARD doesn't want the highway completed. Rather, it would like to see improvements made to Chapman Highway—primarily a center turn lane extended the length of the road. SKARD suggests a merge ramp could be built where the boulevard now ends at Moody Avenue, giving motorists an easier exit there, as well as improvements to the Moody-Chapman intersection. And SKARD wants a safer ramp from James White onto I-40, which the group says will get more people using the South Knoxville Boulevard. "I don't think anybody who has looked at the traffic on Chapman Highway—and I'm in it every day—thinks it's anywhere comparable to what you have on Kingston Pike," says Nolt. "It's just not that bad. It seems to me the solution to that is to make improvements on Chapman Highway.
"Once you get past Moody, which is where I think they ought to bring the road to an end, there's never any problem. Where it's really a problem is at the Henley Street Bridge."
But there are certainly many South Knoxvillians who do want the road finished. Troy Calloway lives about a mile from where the road would intersect Chapman. "I just think it would relieve a lot of traffic off of Chapman Highway," he says. Calloway commutes west to work. While he used to take Chapman Highway downtown to get on I-40, now Calloway takes John Sevier to Alcoa Highway.
"I very rarely go all the way on Chapman Highway. It's got so many red lights. And everybody's in such a hurry these days," he says. "I can't tell you how many serious accidents I've seen on Chapman."
But he doesn't have any preference as to the exact route, and would just as soon see the road brought all the way to John Sevier (which he'd also like to see four-laned).
Others, like Ron Emery—owner of Emery's 5 and 10 and a member of the Knoxville Chamber—say that traffic is bad on Chapman Highway, but are uncertain what is the best solution.
With such divisiveness, City Council unanimously voted in January to ask TDOT to delay the project for a year, while various alternatives could be looked at. South Knoxville Councilman Joe Hultquist is putting together a task force—to include both those in favor of the road and those against it—to look at all possibilities. "What I'm trying to accomplish is a thorough public review process—with TDOT, if not sanctioning it, at least acknowledging it," Hultquist says. "We'll look at everything."
He says he's not out to kill the project. But he says there are many concerns about how the road is being built. He wants TDOT to listen seriously to all those concerns. "Almost everybody who wants the highway built says they would prefer a different terminus," he adds.
Even the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership—a big supporter of the road—has asked TDOT to reconsider the proposed intersection with Chapman.
TDOT officials haven't shown much desire to listen. Although Bill Moore says they'll work with residents regarding design and landscaping, he says TDOT is building the road as an expressway, with its terminus at Chapman Highway. "We've been waiting 16 years. I don't know what we'd accomplish by waiting another six months," Moore says. "We've received substantially more letters in favor of the project than against it. Everybody says, 'What about the elected City Council?' Well, last I checked, we don't work for the mayor and the City Council, we work for the Legislature."
But building highways is about all TDOT seems to know how to do. The Surface Transportation Policy Project—an organization that advocates progressive transportation planning—found that Tennessee ranked among the worst states in terms of spending on alternative transportation and safety. Tennessee was among the states that "show a pattern of spending their federal transportation dollars in the same old ways," the report says. "They spent low amounts in five out of seven measures of innovation. This indicates that they lag behind other states in embracing a diversified and forward-looking transportation policy. Their spending on alternative modes and safety is generally low, and they have failed to direct 'flexible' money toward alternatives to highways."
For instance, of Tennessee's average $401 million spent each year on transportation in the past decade, only about 8 percent went toward transit, 3 percent toward safety projects, less than 1 percent on bike and pedestrian facilities, and less than 1 percent on "intelligent" transportation systems. STPP also found that Tennessee was more likely to expand or build new highways than repair and maintain old ones.
TDOT spokeswoman Luanne Grandinetti says that those who oppose the South Knoxville Boulevard are concerned only about their homes, but TDOT is looking at the area's transportation needs. "Look at the folks who are asking us not to build this road. Who are they? What are their agendas?" she says "We don't have any personal interest in this road. [TDOT Commissioner] Bruce Saltsman lives in Nashville. I live in Nashville. We don't have any interest in the road the way a property owner would."
Several people suspect the sudden urgency has a lot more to do with Victor Ashe than it does with transportation planning. Including Ashe. The mayor and Saltsman have butted heads a number of times over the years. But when Ashe suggested during last year's state budget debate that some of TDOT's gas tax money should be diverted to the state's general fund, it was as though war had been declared. Last August, Ashe wrote Saltsman asking him not to finish the South Knoxville road, and told him the city wouldn't help with pavement markings, signs, traffic signals as it normally would. Saltsman responded that the road would be put on the backburner because of the budget shortfall. Saltsman added, "Let me assure you, we will fight vigorously to do all we can to protect the transportation trust fund which pays for the maintenance and improvement of our system and supports many transportation programs at the local level."
But TDOT later announced it would finish the road, after Sen. Atchley and other state representatives sent a letter to TDOT asking for it to be finished. The agency also received hundreds of letters from people urging completion.
Before last week's TPO meeting, Saltsman called several members of the board (excluding Ashe, Knoxville vice mayor Jack Sharp and Knox County Commissioner Wanda Moody) to ask them to support the project. During the meeting, Ashe and TDOT planning director Ralph Comer sparred bitterly. When a vote on the issue came, Comer asked for a roll-call vote. Ashe saw it as a clear threat from the state to other local governments: support this or risk losing your own road projects.
"[Comer] can go back and tell Bruce how everyone voted. We've never had a roll-call vote—and for Bruce's employee to come in here and ask for it, it's outrageous. He basically bullied [the board members]. You could see how uncomfortable they were," Ashe says. "I think there's a very clear linkage, which is a sad commentary about how public policy is made."
(The TPO board eventually endorsed TDOT's plans to bring the highway into Chapman, with only Ashe and Sharp voting against it. Moody left the meeting prior to the vote. The motion was unusual for the typically deferential TPO board, in that it was opposed by those who represent the city where it will be built, but approved by those who represent other cities and counties.)
Comer says he asked for the roll-call vote on his own initiative. "At some of these meetings, it's sometimes hard to determine whether there's a clear consensus. We wanted to make sure."
Saltsman would not be interviewed for this article. Grandinetti denied the feud is affecting the South Knoxville project. But the highway department clearly resents Ashe. Moore says that they helped Ashe in the early ’90s, when the mayor asked that the bridge be connected to the James White Parkway further away from the riverfront. "[Ashe] wanted to develop the riverfront. He wanted us to move it back on the north side of the Hyatt. We did that.... We spent an extra 20 million to satisfy the mayor there," Moore says. "Now that the mayor got what he wanted, he says, 'We don't want you to do anything else.'"
Ironically, Ashe and Gov. Don Sundquist (and his commissioner Saltsman) are all lame ducks, with Sundquist's term expiring at year's end and Ashe's next year. Ashe predicts the neighborhood activists can beat TDOT by stalling the agency with a lawsuit. "I think they'll succeed in holding it up until a new commissioner and governor take office. They only have to do it for 10 months."
But it could be a long 10 months for those who are exasperated by their dealings with the highway department. "I've never been contacted by anyone from TDOT. When I contact them, it takes about 20 phone calls," says Ray, whose house and business are slated for demolition. "Either the information doesn't exist, or they can't tell it to you, or they don't call you back."
He says if his house and business are taken by eminent domain, he'll probably leave the area. "If I was forced to leave, I'd get enough money to pay off the house, but I wouldn't have enough money to start another business. I'd lose the business, I guarantee it. At that point I don't know what I would do. When you're self-employed, it's nearly impossible to get a loan. So I'd be totally screwed. I'm not a big business, but I am a business."
"If I ran my business like TDOT runs itself, I'd be out of business by one o'clock this afternoon," he adds. "I'm irritated about the road, but I'm really irritated by them blowing money. We're going to spend that kind of money to move a couple miles down the road, and we're 49th in education, and we're closing parks?"
Moore says an updated environmental assessment is due in May and that property acquisition could begin this summer. He dismissed much of the criticism his agency has gotten over the project, saying in the long run, it will be a good thing. "We have controversial projects across the state. You can never satisfy 100 percent of the people.... We think it'll have a positive impact on Chapman Highway and the people who are using Chapman Highway."
Also in Features
- The Stacey Chronicles: a Timeline of State Sen. Stacey Campfield's Greatest “Hits” in 10 Long Years of Legislating
- Signs and Portents: Tennessee's Numerous (and Sometimes Bizarre) State Symbols
- Orange Is the New Green: Is Knox County's New Video-Only Visitation Policy for Inmates Really About Safety—or Is it About Money?