Last Friday, Gov. Bill Haslam announced that the state was the recipient of $1.69 million in federal funds to create and expand recreational trail programs in 12 locations across the state.
"These grants assist local governments and organizations in improving community amenities such as trails, greenways, and recreational facilities, making the outdoors more accessible to Tennesseans," Haslam said in the press release. "The health and wellness of our residents is a top priority and these amenities provide another step to make our state healthier."
Yet while trail systems in Sparta, Martin, and Memphis are growing with the governor's blessing, the biggest trail system in the governor's hometown looks increasingly likely to be partially destroyed, as the Tennessee Department of Transportation attempts to move forward with plans to extend the James White Parkway through South Knoxville's Urban Wilderness to John Sevier Highway.
The governor's stance on it? He doesn't officially have one.
"We have to look at it from a local approach for Knoxville and the impact of the urban wilderness there, but also on the regional approach and the impact on Sevier County. That's one of the roles we play at the state. We will be doing both of those before we make a recommendation," Haslam told WBIR last week.
Even though TDOT announced Monday it would be postponing a decision on the project until after two public hearings in October and another 21-day public comment period at that time, the delay seems designed to garner consensus for a new, fourth route for the highway: the "Modified Green Alternative," which "further minimizes impacts to the Urban Wilderness, reduces residential and business relocations, and reduces the total amount of Right of Way needed to build the project."
"The Modified Green Alternative has a boulevard design, which reduces the footprint of the project and the impacts to the Urban Wilderness, which was one of the primary concerns we heard during the public comment period," says TDOT Commissioner John Schroer in Monday's press release. "This proposal not only minimizes the impacts to trails, but also provides an opportunity to connect some of Knoxville's bicycle and pedestrian facilities while also still fulfilling the initial purpose and need of the project."
The original plans for the JWP extension had a "Blue Alternative," and "Red Alternative," and a "Green Alternative," so the name of TDOT's new proposal isn't exactly an attempt at greenwashing. As for the content—well, it's too early to tell.
The press release TDOT sent out has a map of the modified Green route placed next to the original Green, Red, and Blue routes. What Monday's announcement didn't include was any specifics. The original Green Alternative had the highest number of residential relocations—47 houses—but TDOT doesn't actually know yet how many of those homes would be spared in the new plan.
"The [Environmental Impact Statement] studied a larger footprint that a freeway design would have. The Modified Green Alternative, in addition to some adjustments to minimize conflicts with the trails, has a smaller footprint, thus requiring less Right-of-Way. The gathering of preliminary numbers associated with this project is ongoing, and will be shared at the community meetings planned for early October," says agency spokesperson Mark Nagi in an e-mail.
TDOT also is waiting until October to unveil any further details of the route, like what the boulevard design would look like, whether there would be elevated sections of the parkway to allow bike paths to cross under it, and how much more those elevated sections might add to the projected $105 million cost for the five-mile extension.
Yet while the cost of the project is something that could eventually lead to TDOT (or the Legislature in charge of TDOT's budget) scrapping it, the cost is the least of the concerns for people like Brian Hann. The extension would go through (or right next to) Hann's property, but he's even more upset about the destruction of miles and miles of trails that he and other members of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club have helped build over the past several years. Hann even received a state parks and recreation award from Haslam in 2011 for his volunteer service.
Hann says the boulevard idea is just as ludicrous an idea as the interstate-style JWP.
"It's not the route, it's the fact that it's a highway going through neighborhoods and bisecting an untouched wilderness," Hann says.
Legacy Parks Foundation executive director Carol Evans concurs.
"It's far beyond a trail. It's an economic asset," Evans says. "There have been at least $5 million in land transfers in the area over the past few years specifically because people want to live near the Urban Wilderness. ... People don't move to a community for a road."
Evans says that if the Urban Wilderness is split by a road, whatever shape or route it eventually takes, it would put the foundation "back at ground zero," severely limiting its ability to attract events like this October's Tennessee Adventure Challenge, which will bring 200 competitors from across the country to Knoxville.
"We're not making [the economic impact] up. Look at the success of Chattanooga when they decided to call themselves an outdoor city," Evans says. "I'm not saying that we're the same at all, but you have Boulder, and it's the city at the base of the Rockies, and we're at the base of the Smokies. We could be a destination like Boulder. We are where people fly into if they want to go to the Smokies."
TDOT continues to insist the road is necessary, but it won't provide the source of its analysis that projects a massive increase in traffic along Chapman Highway over the next 20 years.
For example, the EIS projects 34,000 daily trips on Chapman south of Moody in 2015, and 54,000 in 2035. But TDOT's own road counts show only 26,764 trips for 2012. Nagi says, "I do know that the closure of the Henley Bridge closure has an effect on those numbers," and points to numbers that show 29,966 drivers in 2010.
Traffic on that section of the road did reach over 34,000 drivers in 2004 and 2005. However, numbers since 1985—the furthest back data available—show a consistent fluctuation between 26,000 and 34,000 average daily trips. Traffic has neither dramatically increased nor decreased in almost 30 years.
"All data is being re-evaluated and will be shared at the community meetings in October," Nagi says, but he still declined to explain why TDOT is convinced traffic will grow so dramatically in South Knoxville by 2035.
One likely key to why TDOT seems to be so in favor of the project can be found in Monday's press release.
"‘As a former mayor, I strongly believe that TDOT should work with local officials and communities to address their transportation needs,' added Schroer. ‘However, I feel this project has regional significance beyond Knox County, and I want to hear from everyone who would potentially be served by this route.'
"Approximately 70 percent of the traffic that is currently traveling northbound on Chapman Highway crossing the Henley Bridge is seeking interstate access. Currently, Chapman Highway is the primary north-south multi-lane corridor available for motorists traveling to and from southern Knox County, the Seymour portion of Sevier County, and northeast Blount County."
That echoes Haslam's earlier statement about it being a "regional" project, even though the road itself would be entirely located in Knox County. Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero's response seems to attack this line of thinking.
"I support major safety improvements and enhancements to Chapman Highway, Alcoa Highway, and other existing roads and highways that serve our region. We should work together regionally to create the future we want through smarter development and transportation patterns, rather than destroy this wonderful economic and environmental asset on the basis of projected future traffic needs," Rogero said in a statement.
Hann says the Urban Wilderness already is a regional amenity, and one that's more important than another road.
"We already have a highway to Sevier County. It's called Chapman Highway," Hann says. "I think it's a pretty well functioning highway, especially compared to other roads, like Kingston Pike. I've never really had a problem with Chapman, and I've lived out there for 13 years."
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett is continuing to ride the fence on the project, although he says his opinion of the roadway hasn't changed at all.
"I'm where I've always been," Burchett says. "I'm with the landowners. As long as they're okay with it, then I'm okay with it. If they're not, then I'm not."
But it's likely the project will eventually come down to Haslam. His office won't say if he or any of his staff members will bother to attend the public hearings in October, which have not yet been scheduled. But they are keeping a tally of the comments he's been getting.
"We've received 203 e-mails about the James White Parkway Extension, mostly against the project," says spokesperson David Smith. "We've received less than a dozen phone calls and even fewer letters, with a couple of letters supporting the project."
That's good news for opponents of the highway, but it will be months before they'll know if any of their fervent pleas have made a difference.