Knoxville's I-40: Highway Star

Utilizing new technology and community outreach, TDOT completes a marvel of interstate engineering—just as other cities have been tearing their interstates down

TDOT regional spokesperson Travis Brickey is driving on the new downtown stretch of Interstate 40 West a week before it will be opened to the public. It has that neutron bombed look to it. It's finished and seemingly perfect but aside from some touch-up workers and those authorized to actually use it as a shortcut, there's no one here. Still, even with no traffic, at the wheel of a car that's moving 11 miles per hour and has three lanes to itself, it's unnerving when Brickey goes through the contortions that used to be involved in entering Westbound I-40 traffic from Eastbound James White Parkway.

"You're coming in from the left so you can't use your mirrors," he says. "You're going 40 trying to merge with traffic going 65. You're looking over your right shoulder instead of where you're going. If the person in front of you wigs out or—God forbid—stops, it's all over."

Even non-Catholics would cross themselves before entering that fray. That interchange has been replaced by a pristine on-ramp entering from the right on a gentle grade with long sightlines.

SmartFIX40, the statewide-and-beyond collective hustle that came together to modernize a short stretch of interstate highway built some 50 years ago, has finally drawn to a close. Nine tenths of a mile of mostly four-lane highway was adjusted to accommodate three lanes in each direction. One tunnel and 25 bridges were either built or rebuilt. A tangle of ill-conceived connections to the highway was redesigned with more thought to safety, modern traffic volume, and the concerns of those who live nearby. Some replacement bridges were built in situ, while traffic continued to move on those about to be retired up until the last possible moment. Drivers had no idea that they were driving on old surfaces supported by new infrastructure. When unmapped utilities were discovered, they were re-routed using futuristic remote-controlled boring equipment that could tunnel under homes and streets without disrupting traffic or lives. A length of First Creek that had been diverted through a concrete box culvert in the 1960s was opened up to daylight, a step expected to improve water quality and alleviate flooding in the historic Fourth and Gill neighborhood.

The renovated highway was opened last week to justifiable fanfare… before deadline, and only slightly over budget. Not counting early-finish incentives, the package is expected to cost less than $209 million, which is less than 10 percent more than projected. Keep in mind that the project was executed during a period that saw steel and fuel prices doubling. And when workers discovered the nearly seven miles worth of buried utilities of which there had been no record, re-routing them added the unprojected expense of some $20 million.

"We decided at our cost to do a lot of the borings for the utility relocations," says Jeff Walker, project superintendent. "We chose to do that boring so there wouldn't be the inconvenience of open cuts in the roadway or people's yards.

"I think the reason the project has been successful is the community involvement. The department met with the community groups, got their input and tried to incorporate that into the design. Bringing them in during the design phase probably saved a lot of grief. They've developed a very successful public relations office there on Sixth Avenue, where the general public can go in and ask any question they want to ask. They'll take them up on the site. We've definitely been accessible."

Don't let them distract you while driving, but some of the interesting new techie things you'll see along I-40 downtown include a transparent sound barrier installed to let the sun shine on a grassy corner in Fourth and Gill. Black ribbons inside the barrier help birds see it and change course. You'll see a retaining wall with solar panels on top. The panels power monitoring equipment to see how this new kind of wall ages and changes. Instead of mass and gravity holding it together, at a depth that would have encroached upon protected historic property, the surprisingly thin wall is bound vertically by steel bolts under tension that run its height internally. You'll see experimental porous sound barriers that look like stone, but are actually made of recycled wood fibers and are more effective at absorbing highway noise.

In the eyes of some, SmartFIX's success works against it in certain ways. The interstate was closed and traffic detoured to I-640. There was no catastrophe, and in some ways the route was an improvement. Additional mitigation efforts—such as shuttle buses running between neighborhoods—were prepared in advance but never employed because they weren't necessary. The exercise demonstrated that perhaps we do not need an interstate downtown.

"The interstate's route is a decision that's made on a federal level," says Brickey. "The primary reason the interstate's where it is now, is that when the interstate system came about, Knoxville had already built what they called the Frank Regas expressway (a name apparently used interchangeably with a project of the same epoch called the Magnolia Expressway). That went basically from Gay Street over toward 17th Street. It was already close to interstate standards at the time. Of course, this was in the '50s. So when they were plotting out the interstate system, here's a section that's already built, so they just connected to both ends.

"You talk to some of the old-timers, thinking about over 100,000 cars and trucks a day wasn't even in the realm of possibility. There are things that you know must have happened. Local business owners and economic folks feared that if the interstate by-passed your city it would be devastating. So there was pressure."

A Knoxville-based transportation planner involved in SmartFIX who asked not to be named, said he was disappointed that the project did not extract the highway from downtown. He offered Milwaukee as an example of another river city that, when faced with the decision to rebuild or remove their downtown freeway, tore it down. According to preservenet.com, Milwaukee was looking at a $100 million renovation of Park East Freeway. Instead they chose a $25 million demolition, 80 percent of which was paid for by federal funds. The 26 acres liberated downtown are said to have attracted over $300 million in new development. Also of interest, preservenet.com says that TDOT's home base, Nashville, included in its 50-year plan the goal of removing its downtown loop which carries traffic for I-40, I-65 and I-24.

"Hindsight's 20/20," says Brickey.