John Hunter is TDOT Project Manager for the proposed South Knoxville Boulevard extension. On Feb. 17, Hunter and others shared information with some 90 citizens on the progress of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) currently underway for that project. (The road—which is proposed to connect South Knox Boulevard, from its current abrupt ending at Moody Avenue, to Governor John Sevier Highway—is also referred to as James White Parkway and State Route 71.) Along with details about possible routes and the requisite public comment period (which remains open until March 10), perhaps the biggest news for many was the simple fact that the extension was still a going concern. It has not been much discussed since the discovery of several sinkholes on a proposed route several years ago.
"It's important to note," says Hunter, "just because you don't see anything going on out there, there is work happening. We get asked all the time, ‘We thought you were going to be out here building this road. Why aren't you out here?' There is a process that we have to do. It's federally mandated and there's nothing we can do to speed that up. We try our best to meet every deadline. There are things that we cannot skip. You can't arbitrarily skip something just because you don't like it or it takes too long or it costs too much."
The South Knox Extension project has a history. And for reasons ranging from the usual NIMBY to the long-view "more roads mean more cars" sort, outspoken Knoxvillians have been opposing it for much of that history. But if you travel Chapman Highway at all, you can see very clearly the perceived need for relief or improvement, and why an alternate route makes more sense to many than modernizing Chapman. This curvy, country road that has been slowly absorbed by a metropolitan area and adapted piecemeal is constrained in many places by topography and development that precludes widening. For the same reason, many businesses have been built just a car-length or two from the highway, and no amount of creative detouring would allow them to serve customers if the road was closed for improvement.
"I've been here for 25 years," says Jeff Welch of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization (TPO). "And it's been debated for that long.
"There are a number of locations on Chapman Highway, typically intersections, that, based on delays and the types of accidents that are happening, are unacceptable for an urban thoroughfare. Think about Chapman Highway in 25 years. Do you want it to be crossable by cars and pedestrians? Do you want it to be bike-able? How can you accomplish those things with 60,000 cars per day on that highway? Can we pull some of that traffic off of Chapman Highway so we can make it more of an urban street? That had as much to do with the James White Parkway/South Knoxville Boulevard extension as anything."
"We have a lot of businesses on Chapman Highway," says TDOT regional spokesperson Travis Brickey. "Any kind of major improvement—widening or anything like that—you're going to take a lot of businesses. A lot of that's going to be very, very expensive. If we were building it in today's world, we'd avoid having a four-lane with only a double-yellow line separating it. As many people as there are who want us to do something about Chapman Highway, there are just as many people who do not want to be affected by any kind of improvement."
Affected, in this case, meaning businesses closed temporarily or permanently.
The proposed extension was included in the Better Roads Program of the mid-1980s, and according to Brickey, it's been included in legislation in various forms since the 1960s. When Gerald Nicely became TDOT Commissioner in 2003, the project was on the department's list of 15 most controversial projects.
"It was revisited by UT's Center for Transportation Research," says Brickey. "Their recommendation was to hand it back to the locals, and that's what we did. The locals, led by Councilman (Joe) Hultquist, looked at the James White Parkway or South Knoxville Boulevard extension, however you want to call it. They recommended back to TDOT that we would do an EIS. That's what we agreed to do and that's what we're underway on. We did our first public meeting in 2007. Just a week or two ago we came back with our ‘preliminary alternatives' meeting, where we actually looked at the alternatives to the corridor. That's something that's required by the EIS, including the ‘no-build' option."
"When I came into office in 2002," says Hultquist, "I was committed to build a task force of opponents and proponents. We received no support from Knoxville or TDOT. The number one recommendation of the task force was the EIS. There are people who are rightfully concerned. The most common criticisms are the impact on the terrain and on the communities."
Hultquist adds that a recommendation of which he was particularly fond—but did not make it into the task force report—was to make the extension functional to mass transit, such as a light rail carrier that could travel beyond Seymour to the tourism destinations in the Smokies.
"I've tried to be as neutral as possible," Hultquist says. "If there's support, I'm not going to stand in its way. I am in favor of some solution to the traffic congestion on Chapman Highway. My preferred solution would be to move toward some kind of transit solution. One of the problems with building highways is ‘induced demand'—more roads just bring more cars.
"I will say that I don't think this is a high priority for TDOT, which is squeezed for funds at the moment and is likely to become more so. Historically, TDOT has always had resistance from impacted homeowners. And historically they would just do it and go on."
Most observers of this drawn-out process consider the fact that it has been drawn out and scrutinized something of a triumph. Welch says that the task force did not endorse building the highway. It endorsed the ongoing gathering of information.
"Knowing the people that want it, I knew it wasn't going away," says South Knoxville homeowner Elizabeth Farr, who has been a member of the task force. "The way I see it, a lot of these ‘task forces' are just hoops that they need to jump through to get what they want, no matter what happens.
"I was just grateful that we had those 20-plus years without it. My daughter got to grow up in the neighborhood without an interstate behind her house."
The no-build option is exactly what it sounds like; the road would remain as is, providing an express route from downtown to Moody Avenue. Essentially, the EIS will consider everything about the environment along five proposed routes—from caves to sinkholes to cemeteries to homes to the relatively newly established 75-acre William Hastie Natural Area, just north of Chapman Highway near Redbud—and will come up with a final route to recommend. On the accompanying illustration (page 10), you can see the purple route suggested by the Citizen Resource Team advising TDOT. (According to some involved, the process of choosing that route was complex and far from satisfactory to all. But among other things it sacrificed Marie Myers Park in the interest of skirting the residential neighborhood of View Park.) The other four routes were chosen from 50 that were drawn by a supercomputer in London, England, operating with a database that knows everything about the land that TDOT knows. The EIS may also recommend not building at all. The results are expected within two years.
Hunter and Brickey say that written and submitted public comments won't be compiled and summarized until after March 10, and that they won't see those comments until they're processed.
For more information—including a printable public comment form—visit the project's website.