Highway projects never die, they just move down the list. Decades ago, Knoxville billed itself as the Gateway to the Smokies and the James White Parkway would deliver tourists through Knoxville to Gatlinburg and the park.
Ambitious and far-seeing interests got busy in Sevier County while Knoxville was busy dropping the ball. The Sevier County boys got a new bridge across the French Broad River, hooking up with the new Interstate 40. Highway 66 became a straight shot from I-40 to Gatlinburg, going through the sleepy town of Sevierville and a couple of miniature golf courses in some place called Pigeon Forge.
While Knoxville was celebrating a World’s Fair and congratulating itself, folks over in Pigeon Forge were busy building tourist attractions, located along the route between I-40 and Gatlinburg. Meanwhile, if you are a conspiracy theorist, the James White Parkway Gateway to the Smokies languished on the priority list of state projects.
For three decades now, Highway 66 has become a tourist bonanza with hotels, restaurants, factory outlets, and destination attractions like Dollywood. The James White Parkway, meanwhile, became plans in a file cabinet and endless study by committees.
Now the James White Parkway has resurfaced. There will be a public hearing Dec. 6 at South Doyle Middle School to discuss the route and the environmental impact.
It is a project whose original goal is moot, but rather than scrap the idea we have a new rationale for it. We have spent millions to leave it ending onto a nondescript street in South Knoxville, accessed by a Bridge to Nowhere. There is a natural impetus to finish the project, even decades later and after the original reason to build it has passed.
In 2001 I was working for Mayor Victor Ashe when some local Republicans got Gov. Don Sundquist interested in finishing the parkway. The plan at the time was just to extend it from the bridge to another spot on Chapman Highway. We took a thorough look at it and could find no reason to negotiate sinkholes and tear through a South Knoxville neighborhood just to dump the traffic a few miles further down Chapman Highway.
We argued that the money would be better spent on turn lanes and traffic signals to improve safety on Chapman Highway.
There might be some rationale to take the parkway further south to tie in to John Sevier Highway, but that was not an option at the time. But to tie the parkway into Chapman Highway was just stupid. That argument and Ashe’s opposition led to a re-thinking of the project and years of committees and studies.
Ten years along, the question now is whether it is indeed worth it to connect the James White Parkway Bridge to John Sevier Highway.
There is one question that ought to offset all other questions regarding the project and that is: Why?
Businesses along Chapman Highway are already hurting from the closure of the Henley Street Bridge. Diverting future traffic around these businesses to John Sevier Highway will further harm the retail center that serves South Knoxville.
South Knoxville is growing and it might be argued that this traffic artery will help move people from the neighborhoods to downtown Knoxville and to I-40. But growth and development is in the in-fill between John Sevier Highway and the South Knoxville waterfront. Yes, interchange exits off the parkway extension can serve South Knox County and move traffic to I-40, not downtown.
But again, commercial development at these interchanges will be another blow to Chapman Highway merchants who are helped by traffic on Chapman Highway and the location of gas stations and restaurants that draw surrounding residents.
South Knox County is also becoming known for its urban wilderness trails and legacy parks in addition to its long-time treasure, Ijams Nature Center. Nature areas and interstates are not compatible.
Let’s just start calling the Bridge to Nowhere the Bridge to Thriving South Knoxville and leave it at that.
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