Once the legal issues are resolved, the Tennessee Department of Transportation will move ahead with the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.
State Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely said the proposed four-lane highway is an important need for Blount County. He made the announcement Monday at TDOT region headquarters in Knoxville.
Nicely also announced decisions on two Knoxville road projects. The proposed James White Parkway will go back to local government for further review. The Knoxville Beltway (State Route 475) will be built, but TDOT recommended a modified version of the proposed route.
``The Tennessee General Assembly identified the Pellissippi Extension as an urgent highway need,'' said Nicely. ``A Federal court injunction overrides any current action by TDOT, but we hope to settle that issue.''
Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension (CAPPE) challenged the proposed route last year in court. CAPPE asserted that the project required an Environmental Impact Statement, which is a more detailed analysis than the Environmental Assessment completed by the Federal Highway Administration. Federal courts issued an injunction June 2002.
Planning and development resumes once authorized by the court, according to TDOT. The agency will work with the federal administration ``to initiate and conduct the maximum level of environmental analysis needed to move this project forward,'' said Nicely.
``It's very positive. We're very pleased with the decision,'' said Tommy Hunt, chair of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee.
When and if the legal issues are settled, Nicely said TDOT would also work with impacted land owners, another statement that sat well with Hunt.
Chamber representatives have also suggested building a bike path along one section of the highway. The planned route is four lanes, a 4.4-mile highway, which will connect State Highway 33 (Old Knoxville Highway) and U.S. Highway 321 (East Lamar Alexander Parkway).
State Rep. Doug Overbey said some residents would be happy with the decision, and others would be unhappy.
``To some extent, you have to trust the process,'' said Overbey. ``(The parkway extension) has been on the books since 1986.''
TDOT had the parkway and 14 other controversial projects reviewed by the University of Tennessee's Center for Transportation Research, he added, and the agency also requested UT make recommendations for improvement within TDOT.
Review of the projects came at the request of Gov. Phil Bredesen.
``Now the decision has been made to go forward,'' Overbey said.
But officials still haven't shown justification for the project, particularly supporting data for assertions that the road will relieve traffic congestion, according to Nina Gregg, communications chair for CAPPE.
``We're disappointed,'' she said after TDOT's press conference.
CAPPE President Susan Keller charged that project planning was outdated.
``There was nothing said about this being a 20-year-old plan,'' she said after the announcement. ``Blount County has changed a lot in 20 years -- they didn't account for this.''
The highway won't stop at U.S. Highway 321 (East Lamar Parkway), said Keller. The Pellissippi Parkway Extension will only pave the way for the beginning of the southern bypass, called the ``Southern Loop'' by some residents.
According to the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization's ``Long-Range Affirmation Plan Affirmation,'' the first segment of the southern bypass would connect U.S. Highway 321 (East Lamar Alexander Parkway) to U.S. Highway 411 South. The second segment would connect U.S. Highway 411 South to Topside Road. The proposed 27-mile route, which would circle Maryville and Alcoa, is unfunded.
State of the suit
Nothing happens until CAPPE's lawsuit is resolved, an issue further complicated when the Federal Highway Administration attempted to withdraw its Finding of No Significant Impact after the court issued the injunction. According to TDOT publicists, the federal agency ``filed a motion with the U.S. District Court requesting voluntary remand of this matter to (the federal agency) .... for further review consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act.''
The motion was denied and is currently on appeal with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio.
``It doesn't really change anything for us,'' said Gregg of TDOT's Monday announcement. ``We're still awaiting the outcome of the legal process.''
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