Like a zombie crawling out of a grave or a horror-movie killer who refuses to stay dead, the James White Parkway extension is the roadway project that just won’t go away.
South Knoxvillians may have forgotten about the long-proposed highway extension since it last reared its head years ago, but it turns out the project was just in hibernation, awaiting the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s completion of an environmental assessment.
Now that the 430-page behemoth is available for perusal at the public library and on TDOT’s website, it’s time for a public hearing on the matter. And if public reaction to date is anything to go by, the meeting (Dec. 6 at 5 p.m. at South-Doyle Middle School) should be a doozy—much of the support TDOT may have once had for the highway seems to have long disappeared.
There have been plans for a highway in South Knoxville almost as long as highways have been a thing. The first version of such a road was discussed in the 1950s, then from every decade thereon a new, slightly different version popped up. The bridge across the river was built in the early ’80s, and a decade after that, TDOT extended the highway to Moody Avenue, where sinkholes prevented further construction.
But a few years after that, TDOT was back, looking to extend the road once again to Chapman Highway, not too far from Ye Olde Steakhouse. Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe led the battle to get the highway quashed for the time being, and he says he’s surprised TDOT’s bringing it back up now.
“This is like a bad penny that keeps reappearing, except in this case it’s millions of dollars,” Ashe says.
The main difference between the last time this debate popped up in the early years of this century and today is that in the intervening decade, there have been hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours of manpower spent turning chunks of South Knoxville into an “urban wilderness”—and all three of the proposed routes for the highway go right through the heart of it. Not only would the James White Parkway extension cut into the William Hastie Natural Area, it would bisect a number of trails.
Both the Legacy Parks Foundation and Ijams Nature Center have issued press releases opposing the project. “This Urban Wilderness we’re creating in South Knoxville enriches neighborhoods, promotes community health, increases property values and makes Knoxville an attractive community for visitors, residents and businesses,” Chad Youngblood, the Legacy Parks Foundation board chair, states in the release. “Traffic counts no longer support the need for the extension and its construction will have a lasting and detrimental effect on our entire community.”
TDOT says the highway is a needed alternative to Chapman Highway. Unlike the plan from the early 2000s, all three versions of the project would extend James White Parkway to Governor John Sevier Highway, right where that road intersects with Chapman. (The detailed plans for each version’s intersection and road improvements can be found in the environmental impact statement.)
TDOT statistics estimate traffic counts on Chapman Highway growing by 20,000 cars between 2015 and 2035, up to 66,000. But it’s worth noting that the 1964 Knoxville-Knox County Plan estimated 61,000 cars driving over Henley Bridge daily by 1982. And 10 years ago, when TDOT was trying to get what was then called the South Knoxville Boulevard built, it estimated Chapman Highway would have over 60,000 cars in 20 years—i.e., by around 2020.
When specifically asked about this fluctuation in traffic count, TDOT spokesperson Mark Nagi responded via e-mail with a statement directly copied from the Frequently Asked Questions page of the TDOT website about the project: “Chapman Highway currently serves a combination of local daily commuter traffic, traffic accessing local businesses, and through-traffic traveling to and from points beyond the immediate project area. The needs for this project are primarily based on existing traffic congestion and roadway capacity issues along various segments of Chapman Highway between Governor John Sevier Highway and downtown Knoxville. Based on traffic projections, these issues are expected to gradually worsen resulting in continued increases in traffic congestion and safety issues along the roadway.”
The highway is estimated to cost between $103-$106 million, depending on which of the three alternatives are selected, and Nagi says that construction would likely not start for several years. Between 62 to 65 households would be forced to relocate due to the project, along with two to five businesses (again, depending on the route). But Nagi says the human and environmental cost is worth it.
“[S]ome adverse impacts to the social environment would be anticipated. However, improved safety and efficiency of the transportation system in southern Knox County would also be anticipated with construction of the new roadway. This could result in long-term beneficial impacts to the social environment and local community as a whole,” Nagi writes.
Opponents of the highway have also mentioned the negative effect it could have on South Knoxville businesses—many Chapman Highway businesses have been quite vocal about the negative impact the Henley Street Bridge closure has had on them, and a highway that diverted even more traffic away from them would seemingly hurt worse. But Nagi says sometimes that’s the price of progress.
“In terms of economic impacts, some existing businesses, especially those along Chapman Highway, could be potentially impacted by construction of a new roadway that could result in shifting traffic to new areas. However, the region as a whole could benefit economically due to the improved transportation options and access that would be provided. These transportation improvements could promote some additional economic development or growth in the south Knox County region,” Nagi writes.
Nagi says that TDOT is still considering the no-build option, which is one of the reasons it is having the Dec. 6 public meeting.
“TDOT works extensively with local citizens, community leaders, transportation planning organizations, etc before making any decision on a project,” Nagi writes.
But longtime opponents of the highway remember that TDOT didn’t seem to care about a lot of people’s opinions last time, which is why Ashe says that everyone should contact their state legislators, along with Gov. Bill Haslam, to express their opposition to the project. State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, who represents part of South Knoxville, says she is monitoring the project but hasn’t made up her mind about it one way or another; attempts to contact Reps. Harry Brooks and Joe Armstrong, who also represent parts of South Knoxville, were unsuccessful by press time.
Mayor Madeline Rogero, a South Knoxville resident herself, has come out against TDOT’s plans, along with Vice-Mayor Nick Pavlis. Whether city opposition can make a difference this time around remains to be seen, but having a governor with strong ties to the administration probably can’t hurt.
“The best Christmas present would be for the governor to direct TDOT to cancel it,” Ashe says. “It’s just a terrible idea.”