Knoxville's not a town that goes to public meetings. Even the most heated Knox County Commission debates have, at the most, 200 people. So when you get more than triple that number at a public meeting, especially one that starts at 5 p.m., right when most people are normally leaving work? Well, you know it's a big deal.
Such was the case last Thursday night, when supporters and opponents of a new highway through South Knoxville filled the auditorium at South-Doyle Middle School. The crowd ranged from college students to the elderly. Most of Knoxville City Council was there, as was Mayor Madeline Rogero, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, and a couple of Knox County Commissioners. There were people who live in South Knoxville, people who work in South Knoxville, and people who play in South Knoxville. And what was supposed to be a two-hour meeting turned into a forum that lasted until almost 9 p.m.
But at the end of the night, after all the speeches and applause and cheers and boos had ended, only one thing was clear: Whichever side gets their way, it's going to lead to even more rancor in the community.
At the beginning of the meeting, TDOT representatives gave a presentation on the reasoning behind extending the James White Parkway to connect to John Sevier Highway at Chapman Highway. Parts of Chapman, they said, have a crash rate double that of comparable Tennessee roadways. Approximately 75 percent of northbound traffic is on the way to access Interstate 40 or Interstate 275. An alternative plan to widen all of Chapman and build a turn lane would have a "severe impact" on local businesses, which is why the agency decided against it.
There was no mention by TDOT of the severe impact on businesses that would happen if 75 percent of Chapman's traffic were diverted onto a freeway-style alternative route. And when TDOT stated that building the new highway would lead to "increased access to trails in the area," a number of people in the audience laughed out loud. Each of the three proposed routes for the road would destroy a number of trails, as well as slicing into the William Hastie Natural Area.
TDOT's main stated reason for the need for a new road is that from 2015 to 2035, traffic levels on Chapman Highway will become unsustainable, reaching up to 66,000 cars at some points in the road—a jump of 25,000 vehicles over the time period. However, it's unclear how realistic these numbers are.
TDOT was unable to provide any information on its statistics or methodologies on the projected traffic counts by press time, but a look at Chapman Highway's traffic counts on TDOT's Traffic History section of its website shows that the average daily vehicle count has only increased by 4,000 to 10,000 cars (depending on which section of the road you look at) from 1985 to 2010—a 25-year period. And as we have reported in the past, Henley Bridge traffic counts were first supposed to hit 61,000 in 1982. But in only two years—1996 and 1998—have they ever gone over 50,000, and for the past decade they have hovered in the low 40,000s.
TDOT is also already working on two improvement projects to Chapman—adding a center lane for about a mile from the Evans Road intersection to Burnett Station, and a similar project in Sevier County from Macon Lane to State Route 338.
The opponents of the highway outnumbered the supporters by a good margin at the meeting, but the supporters were the most vocal, booing Rogero and Vice-Mayor Nick Pavlis as they stated their opposition to the project.
"We are not the bridge to nowhere anymore," Rogero said, mentioning the nickname the James White Parkway has acquired due to its dead-end nature. "We are the bridge to an urban recreation destination."
Pavlis said that the new Urban Wilderness has rebranded South Knoxville, but he also mentioned that diverting traffic from Chapman would have a "devastating effect" on local businesses.
"We put a man on the moon. We can make Chapman Highway safe," Pavlis said.
More than 60 people signed up to speak at the forum, although several had left by the time their names were called. One man, Lloyd Burton, said he was in favor of the road as long as the route was changed so that it didn't go through his property.
But while supporters of the highway seemed to mostly fit into a stereotype—older, conservative, skeptical of alternative transportation—the opponents ran the gamut. The League of Women Voters voiced its opposition, as did Ijams Nature Center. Several Chapman Highway business owners expressed concern that the highway would destroy their businesses.
Scott Smith of Tennessee Valley Bicycles pointed out that the outdoor industry is one that's actually grown during the recession, so destroying the Urban Wilderness in favor of a road is short-sighted thinking.
"The Urban Wilderness in the long term is going to improve the quality of life for the entire city," Smith said.
TDOT said it will be "several months to a year" before a decision is made whether to build or not, but the agency won't consider any public comment not postmarked on or before Jan. 4. It remains to be seen whether the opposition of local government will have any effect.
In addition to Rogero, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has stated his opposition to the project. Although the highway would clip South-Doyle Middle School's property, Knox County Schools has not yet taken a side.
"This is not a matter that has been discussed by the Board of Education, and we have not developed a position on the proposal," KCS spokesperson Melissa Copelan wrote in an e-mail.
Ultimately, of course, TDOT is a state agency, which means the influence of Gov. Bill Haslam could outweigh that of his mayoral successor. Haslam's office declined to say whether or not the governor has an opinion on the project, saying only that "the governor is committed to customer-focused government, meaning a focus on the taxpayers as well as local officials and others."
However, Haslam's office also made a point of directing us to a recent video of TDOT Commissioner John Schroer speaking during state budget hearings in mid-November, saying, "[T]he commissioner has been clear that he's uninterested in pursuing projects unwanted by local partners."
In the video, Schroer, speaking to Haslam, says the following:
"We have embraced totally, Governor, your customer-focused government, and we know that not only are the citizens of Tennessee our customers, but so are the mayors, the county mayors, the city mayors, the legislators, and we are collaborating a lot. … We don't call them the locals anymore, which is what we used to call them. We call them our local partners. And across the state what we're trying to do is say this is a partnership between the local communities and the state and we want to make sure what we build for you will work for you and that you want it. We don't want to build roads that they don't want. And that has happened in the past."
For its part, TDOT had the following response to questions about Schroer's speech.
"What is going on right now in terms of the James White Parkway project is that we are completing the necessary environmental phase, which includes the gathering of public comments. That is why we had the public hearing and why we are continuing to accept comments," spokesperson Mark Nagi writes in an e-mail. "No one project is the same. TDOT has not made any decision yet with regards to the proposed James White Parkway Extension project, be it one of the preferred alternatives or the no-build alternative. TDOT works to find the safest, most cost-efficient course of action, and that is the case in South Knoxville as well."