Traffic jam

Pellissippi Parkway Extension hearing packs school in highway debate

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Or, in Blount County terms, which causes which - road development leads to unrestrained growth or growth spawns the need for road development?

The Pellissippi Parkway Extension has been a hot button for Blount County residents for more than 30 years. Currently, the parkway ends at Old Knoxville Highway and it can permanently stop there at the entrance to a proposed research and development park, or it can be extended to intersect with East Lamar Alexander Parkway near Morningside Church.

When all the studies and opinions on both sides are boiled down, the issue seems to be a chicken/egg dilemma. Opponents say completing the parkway will lead to unrestrained growth that the cities and county aren’t prepared to deal with as far as infrastructure. Supporters say the growth is coming with or without the road and the road is the best hope for alleviating traffic and transportation problems.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation isn’t immune from differences of opinion regarding the extension. As part of the process to either move the project forward or stop it, TDOT held a hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at Heritage High School to get public input regarding the Environmental Impact Statement to be done on the site. More than 500 showed up for the hearing, and there was standing room only in the auditorium as representatives from TDOT and Alcoa, Blount County and Maryville fielded questions from the audience.

Mary English from Knoxville served as moderator. After brief opening remarks from TDOT officials and the mayors of Blount, Alcoa and Maryville, English opened the floor to questions. Questions could either be asked from the floor or written on strips of paper handed out to those interested in speaking. Either the state or local officials then answered the question.

The format called for a 20-minute block of time to be left at the end for public comments. Instead, the audience, by a show of hands, voted to use the remaining time for more questions.

At the meeting

The talking points for both sides haven’t changed much in the almost 30 years the Parkway has been on the drawing boards. Supporters say the extension is needed to help alleviate traffic in Maryville and Alcoa, to help air pollution from cars, and support growth management. Opponents say supporters are borrowing trouble and that those theories really have no basis in fact. They believe the extension will do little to alleviate Blount County’s major traffic problems, will promote uncontrolled growth along the route and will destroy farmland and scenery.

At the meeting, the crowd seemed pretty evenly divided.

TDOT officials said a Draft Environmental Impact Statement was the next step and it wasn’t due for another year. The final EIS would be completed in two years. Ed Cole, TDOT chief of environment and planning, said afterward that that public input is vital in the project. “The final decision is made by the Department of Transportation Commissioner but with input from the public,” he said.

Questions for mayors

Maryville Mayor Joe Swann was asked what plans there were for improving Sevierville Road, a two-lane road with no shoulders. Swann said in 1980 there was a plan to extend Sevierville Road to three and four lanes depending on the location, but the state balked at the amount it was going to cost. “It got to be an expensive project, and TDOT didn’t want to take it on,” Swann said.

Jeff Welch with Knox Regional Transportation Planning said Sevierville Road upgrades are part of long-range plans.

Swann said road projects take a long time to complete. “I don’t know where we would be without roads we’ve built so far and from where I sit this road makes sense. We’re trying to provide infrastructure for the pattern of growth,” he said.

Elaine Kant asked why money for Pellissippi couldn’t go toward fixing local roads instead. Edward H. Cole, chief of Environment and planning for TDOT said it didn’t have to be one or the other. “It’s not ‘either/or,’ he said. “It’s trying to find a balance.”

Regarding infrastructure, Howard Beckwith of Lambert Acres asked if the cities planned to extend sewer and water infrastructure to the urban growth areas. McClain said water and sewer would be extended but that it would take decades.

Susan Keller stood and asked everyone wearing green stickers supporting completion of the parkway to come give her their addresses. She said the road would go through her property. “It’s hard to farm if you don’t have land,” she said.

Phillip Dunn supported completing the parkway and said opponents should have come out against the project when it was first proposed in 1977. Dunn said he remembered growing up in Blount County and how few jobs were here apart from the Alcoa aluminum plant. “The cry then was ‘We need to grow to provide jobs.’ I can remember going to Bungalow School and 400 to 500 people lining up for jobs at Alcoa,” he said.

Tom Robinson of Chas Way Boulevard owns property on Wildwood Road that would be taken in by one of the Pellissippi routes. He questioned which area businesses would benefit by the project. Robinson said he was opposed to the project even though his attorney told him he would be paid well for his property. “They would write me a check for a million dollars, and I say, we don’t need it,” he said. “For those who stood and opposed this, I applaud them.”

John Rash of Blount County asked why area leaders were so enthusiastic about the project when other existing roads need more help. “I think the answer is they want these intersections to create commercial growth to generate money for their coffers,” he said.

Unraveling the road

Nina Gregg with Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension said in many ways, the questions they have are questions they’ve asked for years. “What will the impact be on the community? That’s why we insist that TDOT do an Environmental Impact Statement,” she said.

Tuesday’s meeting provided more of the same, she said. “We didn’t hear anything new from local officials.”

Although she was a little frustrated with there not being time for comments because the questions ran long, Gregg said she thinks TDOT is working to fulfill their obligation to obtain public input on the project. “To fulfill that, there needs to be more time and opportunities,” she said, adding that the event should have been three hours long.

Gregg said the term “environmental” doesn’t only pertain to the natural environment. “It’s the social, economic and cultural environment and its cumulative impact,” she said. “What can we expect to happen over time because we build this road, not just what happens in five years.”

Because the EIS isn’t done yet, Gregg said it’s impossible to know the impact of the extension. “When people say, ‘It’s a good thing; we have to have it. It will be wonderful,’ I ask how do you know. What evidence is there?” she said.

As opponents of the road say it will only induce greater residential and commercial growth to stress the infrastructure, parkway supporters say the growth is coming whether the road is completed or not.

Maryville City Manager Greg McClain said Blount County has been in existence 213 years and has grown on average about 2 percent each year and not because of a road. “It’s almost like the notion of this road is going to cause growth,” he said. “This road is in response to the growth.”

McClain said the lack of growth is what hurts a community. “The traffic is coming whether you build this road or not. The road network and improved road network is in response to growth. It doesn’t cause it. It responds to it,” he said. “I don’t understand the logic that growth or no growth is dependent on this road,” he said. “If we never grew in our population by one person in this county that road is needed today to alleviate traffic through the urban center.”

McClain said there would be idling cars and therefore pollution and congestion if the extension weren’t built. “With this road, you free up an amount of traffic. With this road you’ll be able to speed traffic on through,” he said.

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said he remembers when some complained when US 321 was being extended through Maryville and when the US 129 Bypass was being created, adding that the county would be in trouble today if it weren’t for those roads. McClain said many of the farms around Blount County have been sold. “Our job is to manage that,” he said of subdivisions that grow up where farms were.

“I wish as much as anyone that family farms were still viable,” said Cunningham. “There are three that still dairy and less than a handful crop full time. I understand,” Cunningham said. “Farmers are selling land at $20,000 to $30,000 an acre, and they’ll sell regardless of whether this road comes through or not.”

Polar views

In interviews before the meeting, opponents and supporters outlined their concerns and beliefs about the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.

Fred Forster, president and CEO of the Blount Chamber, said the Blount Chamber Partnership supports the parkway and disagreed with the idea that it would induce growth. “There are roads in West Tennessee that go to no place, and there’s been no growth. To say it induces growth is not accurate. We’re just trying to fulfill demand that’s already there,” he said. “We think it will take some load off Alcoa Highway, off of Old Knoxville Highway. Where it ends now, in the afternoon it’s a nightmare with people trying to get off Pellissippi.”

Forster said the extension wouldn’t be a cure-all. “We never believed it would be, but it’s going to help what’s already out there,” he said.

Parkway proponents say the extension really isn’t an extension at all but rather the originally planned completion of the parkway as scoped out in the 1970s. Opponents contend it is no longer needed since East Lamar Alexander Parkway is now a four-lane highway to Walland.

Forster said the extension would complete the project all the way to the mountains, open tourism up and make the volume of traffic consistent. “You can see the volume of traffic on the portion of Pellissippi that’s been completed. We figure when this is completed, the volume from one end to the other will be the same,” he said.

Gregg said advocates of extending the parkway say the move will improve traffic congestion through the city of Maryville. “TDOT hasn’t shown any data about that. People are taking that on face value. We say before making this investment of tens of millions of dollars and displace farms and residents and induce growth, show evidence this will alleviate traffic,” Gregg said. “There’s no data yet. All the people who are so sure it is a good thing, I want to know why they are so sure. We don’t want government to make decisions based on assumptions and theories.”

McClain said the new road is going to reduce traffic congestion in the city because there will be a portion of the traffic which will be diverted from going through the cities and those drivers will be able to hold a constant speed and not have gridlock. Because they’re not idling in the city, that reduces air pollution, he said.

Gregg said that while Alcoa will enjoy property and sales taxes from the research and development park, the property and sales taxes from the commercial development will go to Maryville and will create a revenue stream. “Outside of that, the Northeastern part of the county is where it’s going to be residential development which doesn’t generate enough revenue to provide services,” she said

Cunningham said the road would be within the urban growth boundary of the cities. “There will be two exits, Sevierville Road and 321. You can control by zoning what goes into those intersections,” he said. “That’s what the Hunter Growth Study talks about, villages springing up around those intersections. The Hunter Growth Study recommends completion of that road.”

Cunningham said subdivisions are going in regardless of Pellissippi Parkway. “As far as schools and all those things, we’re going to have to have them whether the road is there or not. There’s not money to widen existing roads,” he said.

Gregg said planners should address existing road problems instead of building a highway that will feed already clogged roads.

“I think we should address our existing problems and improve our existing roads before we build something that is not going to address problems but make them worse. There’s no plan to do anything about 411 North (Sevierville Road) which is two lane with no shoulders, but there’s enthusiasm about spending tens of millions on an interstate highway that is going to deliver more cars to 411 North but no plan to improve 411 North,” she said. “It seems short sighted. Fix our existing problems with proven solutions.”

Regarding using the money for improving current roads instead of building the Pellissippi extension, McClain said this isn’t a case of choosing one aspect of infrastructure over the other. “Blount County can not build interstates. We need TDOT to build roads like I-140. We need counties and cities to improve local roads that tie into that network and we also need schools and all infrastructures it takes to have a good quality community. The idea you can only have one or the other is shortsighted.”

Alcoa Assistant City Manager Bill Hammon said work on local roads is planned. “We’ve got Middlesettlements extension going from two lanes to five and, you’ll see there will be time and money spent on alternate routes.”

Regarding misconceptions about the Research and Development Park planned for Old Knoxville Highway at Pellissippi Parkway on the Jackson Farm property, Gregg said the extension wasn’t necessary for the park’s businesses to be successful.

McClain agrees and said the park is positioned “wonderfully” to be successful whether Pellissippi stops or goes through it. “Both work perfectly, it’s not going to hurt us one way or the other,” he said. “We advocate the parkway going through and have planned for that; we just think the road is important. It moves traffic through this community.”

Cunningham said the long-term cost of waiting to build the road has increased the price of the project. “When this road is finally built it’s going to cost taxpayers four times as much because of increase in costs than if we had built it 10 years ago,” he said.

Church in danger?

Rev. Ed Santana of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at 2921 Sevierville Road is concerned more about what comes after the parkway extension than the actual completion of the highway.

Santana says the church properties could be affected by the Pellissippi Extension.

Santana said the church could be taken as a result of widening Sevierville Road at the approach to the Pellissippi Parkway interchange when it is completed.

“From what we understand, the Pellissippi Extension itself, in either route, will not directly affect us. It’s when they widen (Hwy.) 411 at the intersection,” when the danger surfaces.

“At this point, drawings we see of the widening of 411 would eliminate the church,” he said. “Basically the church would probably have to go when the road is widened to meet up with Pellissippi.”

Santana said that while they are looking at expanding their church, they don’t want to lose their building, which is modeled after a structure in historic Rugby, Tenn.

“We’ve outgrown our sanctuary,” Santana said, but added, “we don’t want to lose it because it is a beautiful church. We like the building. It’s a landmark in the community. A lot of people recognize it.

“I’ve been told it’s one of the most photographed churches in the community. It’s got that old-time feeling. It’s nostalgic and would absolutely be a loss for us.”

Santana said the issue for the congregation is keeping a community landmark.

“As Maryville seems to be growing and growing, we’re losing that old historical nostalgia, and this building provides that,” he said.

• TDOT is still accepting feedback. Residents who did not attend the meeting can submit comments to TDOT until March 11. E-mail or mail letters to: Project Comments, Tennessee Department of Transportation, Suite 700, James K. Polk Building, 505 Deadrick Street, Nashville, TN 37243-0332.