citybeat (2006-48)

SmartFIX40 may be more intelligent than it looks

Wednesday, Nov. 22

Method to the Madness?

Eugene Leffew’s backyard is a disaster area. Literally. Today, as he takes his two dogs out on leashes in the yard beside his Sixth Avenue home, a chorus of grunting, beeping, and squealing heavy machinery ravages the landscape behind him, putting finishing touches on the new Hall of Fame Drive Bridge. Massive dump trucks trawl up and down the street, one after another; a couple of the drivers wave at the elderly resident as they lurch past.

Leffew doesn’t mind the commotion. “It don’t bother me none,” he says, the corners of his mouth curling into a weatherworn smile. “They keep the mud off the roads.” Over the past two years—he’s lived at this same address for a decade or more—he says he’s learned to tune it out. And when Hall of Fame Drive opens, which it’s scheduled to do on Dec. 14, Leffew thinks it’ll have been worth the all the hassle. “It’s a good thing. It’ll help us out a lot, having a road from South Knoxville to Broadway. And,” he adds, gesturing to the chaos behind him, “it’s a beautiful bridge.”

Indeed, when it’s all said and done, the Hall of Fame Drive Bridge will be framed by pillars and bordered with lights, and “Knoxville” will be spelled out on its westbound side in four-foot stainless steel letters. Eventually, it will be landscaped and dramatically lit from beneath as well. Some say it’ll be Knoxville’s gateway to the east, so to speak.

“It’s an impressive entrance to the city,” says Mark Neuhart of Wilbur Smith Associates, SmartFIX40’s engineering consultant. “It’s been called the Knoxville Signature Bridge.”

As soon as two weeks from now, Knoxvillians will be able to walk, bike or drive the length of the new boulevard that stretches from Hall of Fame Drive’s present dead-end at Summit Hill Drive to Broadway, with an interchange at I-40 that promises to be much easier to enter and exit than the obstacle course motorists presently have to navigate. It’s five lanes wide, with sidewalks and six-foot bike lines heading in either direction.

And it’s only the beginning.

Hall of Fame Drive is just part of the first phase of the four-phase SmartFix40 project, explains SmartFIX40 Community Relations Officer Travis Brickey. (Other segments of Phase I include the construction of a Glenwood Bridge in Fourth and Gill and the replacement of the Summit Hill Bridge, which reopened earlier this month).

To break down the remaining three phases, Phase II will mean the closure of James White Parkway for 10 months (starting Dec. 17) while the Church Avenue Bridge is demolished and replaced and a ramp from 1-40 eastbound to the Parkway is constructed; and Phases III and IV involve closing 1-40 for 14 months, diverting traffic to 1-640 while I-40 from 1-275 to Cherry Street is widened to three lanes. And that’s just the nutshell version: An additional handful of interchange improvements and road relocations are also in the works. The project in its entirety should be completed by 2009. 

“The SmartFIX40 project is the largest, most expensive project to date for TDOT,” Brickey says. “The total cost of the project is $190 million. Compare that to the $63 million [interstate] job that’s being done with out west to understand the magnitude.”

But it has to be done, he says, for the sake of safety if nothing else. “This section of 1-40 has one of the worst safety records in the country. A lot of people call it the ‘suicide ramp,’ the ramp that merges from James White Parkway to the Interstate. It’s really substandard by today’s practices for road-building.”

SmartFIX40 is also “the state’s first real accelerated project,” Brickey says. Essentially, that means that the roads will be closed down completely during construction, which TDOT anticipates will save about 23 months or more of construction time in the long run. “With the closures, we don’t have to worry about having traffic on top of us. It’s safer, and we can get more done,” he says. Because it also eliminates the cost of traffic control and of those associated with risks, accidents and safety, it should theoretically shave off some of the project’s cost as well.

Brickey notes that during each phase, care has been taken not to cut downtown off from the rest of the city by providing feasible alternative arteries. For Phase II, which the project is now entering, that means accessing downtown via the new Hall of Fame Drive. He says the project is also very conscious that it’s working in close proximity to two historic neighborhoods: Fourth and Gill and Parkridge. Sound barriers have been constructed alongside the Interstate adjacent to both neighborhoods.

Patrick McInturff, president of the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Association, says that although he was aware of a few complaints from residents when the construction first began, they’ve mostly subsided. After all, it was no surprise. “It’s been in negotiations for 20 years,” he says.

McInturff recalls that a couple of city public input sessions were held a couple years back, at which point Fourth and Gill residents expressed the need for a well-designed Hall of Fame Drive/Broadway intersection. As it stands, motorists exiting I-40 at Broadway only have the option of merging northbound into traffic. It’s also not very inviting for pedestrians; McInturff says he’s seen a pedestrian get hit and seriously injured while attempting to cross Broadway, a fairly busy route. 

“From the neighborhood’s perspective, we’d like to see the city and TDOT put their heads together and give the neighborhood an intersection with a more urban-friendly design,” he says.

A preliminary feasibility study for the intersection was conducted by TDOT after the public input meetings. The study included some recommended improvements as well as a suggestion to further study some of the alternatives, and was forwarded on to the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization. When McInturff followed up on it with TDOT, he received an email from John Hunter at SmartFIX40’s management office stating, “It is now up to the City of Knoxville, in conjunction with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, to prioritize this project and determine/request funding.”

“So the ball’s in the city’s court,” McInturff explains.

Kelley Segars of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization confirms that a study has been done, but that it’s in the city’s hands to put together the project, find funding, and conduct a more specific study. Since Broadway is a state route, TDOT would also have to concur with the project.

“The new Hall of Fame Boulevard is quite nice except for that intersection,” McInturff says. “They’ve got 97 percent of the job finished. Now they need to finish that last three percent.”


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