New TDOT chief takes second look at projects

by Duncan Mansfield, The Associated Press

February 17, 2003

KNOXVILLE -- Fifteen of the most contentious highway construction
projects in the state, including beltways around Knoxville and Nashville, are
getting a second look by the new Tennessee Department of Transportation

Moving quickly to fulfill Gov. Phil Bredesen's campaign pledge to
restore public confidence in TDOT, Jerry Nicely has put about $2 billion in
major roadwork from the Tri-Cities to Memphis on hold during the review.

He asked transportation researchers at the University of Tennessee to
spend the next four months assessing how project decisions were made, what
was considered and who was consulted.``If we need more time we will take it, but we can't study them to death forever,'' Nicely said.

While almost anyone with a little clout can propose a road -- the governor, a legislator, a community, even TDOT -- final approval rests with the TDOT commissioner, following a series of feasibility, engineering and environmental studies, and at least one or two public hearings.

On the biggest projects, inception to bid letting can take seven years,
TDOT spokeswoman Luanne Grandinetti said. Then construction starts.

Only weeks after taking office, the genial Nicely found himself on a snowy night in Knoxville listening to a succession of organized opponents and occasional supporters of three roads projects proposed for East Tennessee.

One group already has a federal court injunction against the 4.5-mile extension of Pellissippi Parkway in Blount County over environmental concerns. Another plans a lawsuit against a 38-mile ``Orange Route'' beltway around Knoxville, named for the dominant school color for the University of Tennessee. And, the third group opposes an extension of James White Parkway through the center of the city.

Nicely made no guarantees about what will happen to the projects. ``All I can do is promise ... a just evaluation without any preconceptions,'' he said.That was enough, for now. An audience that complained of being ignored by TDOT in the past applauded the new commissioner.

``I am happy and pleased with the governor and how the new commissioner is handling this. They are at least listening to my constituents,'' said state
Rep. H.E. Bittle, R-Knoxville.

Bittle lives in Hardin Valley, a pastoral though increasingly suburban section of north Knox County that's in the path of the proposed $273 million interstate-eligible Route 475 beltway around Knoxville, linking I-40 on the west with I-75 on the north.

Bittle said former Gov. Don Sundquist promised to spare Hardin Valley,
so he was surprised in July when former TDOT Commissioner Bruce Saltsman
announced the path of the Orange Route over two other options.With the Bredesen administration, Bittle is at least hopeful. ``I feel they are going to be honest and sincere and look at it right,'' he said.

Among the other projects under review: expanding U.S. Highway 127 near Crossville; a new route to connect U.S. 19 to Tri-Cities Regional Airport; and the Walnut Grove Road relocation project through open public land near Memphis known as Shelby Farms.

The Interstate 840 routes around Nashville, the partially built 78-mile South route and a proposed 108-mile North route, are also at the top of the list. A citizens group recently filed a fourth lawsuit -- against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- over the environmental impact of 840 South in Williamson County.

``Each project is different and the issues that have become a matter of public debate are different,'' said Stephen Richards, director of UT's Transportation Center, which specializes in studies related to roads, highway safety, transportation policy, regulation and mass transit.

In each case, analysts will try to determine whether all interests were weighed and all voices heard, Richards said.

``It won't be our purpose to say the Orange Route was a totally inappropriate decision, for example,'' Richards said. ``We will simply be looking at it from the standpoint of whether all steps were followed, was the appropriate input received from the public and was that information properly evaluated.

''Those are key issues for Nicely, who said TDOT must do better in soliciting public comment and addressing environmental concerns.Supporters and critics of the Knoxville Beltway who spoke with Nicely found little common ground, either in opinion or fact.

``We believe that a Knoxville Beltway is needed and that after a
six-year selection process the final route decision was based on facts and the
facts have not changed,'' said John Richards, spokesman for Citizens Urging a
Responsible Beltway Selection, or CURBS.

Richard's group contends studies show that without the beltway, which
was first proposed in the 1970s, highway gridlock through the city is inevitable
in 10 years.

But Citizens Against Beltway Orange Location, or CABOL, doesn't believe the
traffic estimates in TDOT's draft environmental assessment, saying the numbers were driven by business interests.

A dozen chambers of commerce and local governments endorsed the beltway
for its commercial value, while Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe criticized its
potential to promote sprawl.

The selected route would create a 120-foot-wide ribbon of asphalt and
grass, with four lanes and a 48-foot median. It would include 10 interchanges
along a 1,239-acre right of way for a projected 88,000 cars a day by 2025.

Eighty homes would be taken, with nearly 300 more affected by the noise
once the project is complete. Nine acres of wetlands and 1,100 feet of
streams also would be affected, and 91 acres of farmland lost.

``Clearly the need to build the beltway,'' CABOL president Mark Richey said,
``is to build the beltway.''


Copyright 2002 Associated Press.