HIGHWAY TALES - Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension stand strong against purported ‘progress’

By Steve Wildsmith

From the Maryville Daily Times. Thursday Sept. 12, 2013

 

Tom Robinson cuts a startling figure, standing in the middle of a soybean field that begins a few yards from the weatherbeaten shack where his father was born, brandishing a Civil War cavalry sword and pointing to a hill on the other side of Wildwood Road.

 

“It’ll come right over the top of that hill,” he says, squinting in the early September sun, late-summer heat causing beads of sweat to blossom along his brow. “It’ll come right through here, and all of this will be gone.”

 

His arms widen, an indication that the house nearby, and his father’s birthplace, and a good chunk of Bowman Farms — designated as the 29th “Century Farm” in Blount County, making it one of a handful that have remained in the same family for at least 100 years — will be lost to the proposed State Route 162, also known as the Pellissippi Parkway Extension. Robinson and other members of the local organization Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension have been fighting the proposed 4.4-mile connector between Old Knoxville Highway and East Lamar Alexander Parkway for more than a decade now, but the project remains in the planning stages.

 

Earlier this summer, the Tennessee Department of Transportation announced that the proposed route — formally labeled Alternative A — had been shifted to the west to avoid archaeological remains. It’s ironic, given that Robinson’s farm, while by no means ancient, is just as historically significant, at least to the Robinson family.

 

“I look out at the land, and I see that’s where my dad taught me how to throw a football,” Robinson says. “I look out and see my grandparents working out there with a mule, or a tractor that didn’t run as well as a mule. If they take my part, the reality of it is the part they’ll take will only be on a check. The part that they’ll leave behind is the part that’s really valuable to me: the memory of my family members on that farm.

 

“I think, in a way, that some of the people building the road think they’re going to win by building it. They thought that back in 1998, when the process started. I really just want to fight for property that my family fought and worked for, and I’m looking forward to it — not in an adversarial way, but I have an obligation to past generations to say, ‘This isn’t the best thing for our community, and you know it.’”

 

Palming the flat of the sword, he passes it through the leaves of the soybean plants, channeling the Roman centurion Maximus, as played by actor Russell Crowe, in the film “Gladiator.” With a slow sweep, he motions to the distant farmhouse on the other side of the field where his hospitalized father lives, to the fire pit where he and friends gather to play music, to the towering trees and fallow pastures and land that his family has tended since 1911. Slowly he turns and fixes that hill, on the other side of which lies the industrial park Pellissippi Place and the terminus of the existing stretch of Pellissippi Parkway, with a gaze as steely as any homesteader of 150 years ago being forced out of hearth and home in the name of progress.

 

“All of this property, to me, is sacred ground,” he says. “And I’m going to protect my land. My family, they built it and worked it, and for somebody to take it for no other reason than raw greed, that’s not right. When you have sacred ground in your family, you don’t give it up.”

 

THE ROAD BEGINS

The Pellissippi Parkway Extension was first conceived on paper in 1977, when East Tennessee officials came up with a regional plan for transportation in and around the Knoxville area. In March of that year, officials in Blount County, Alcoa and Maryville made the first of three requests to extend the existing Pellissippi Parkway from its terminus at Interstate 40/75 in West Knoxville southeast, all the way to East Lamar Alexander Parkway, known then as New Walland Highway.

 

In 1986, the extension was included in the Urgent Needs Highway Plan handed down by the Tennessee General  Assembly, and Pellissippi Parkway — designated as Interstate 140 — was built from I-40/75 to Old Knoxville Highway in four stages, the latest of which was a 2.1-mile section from Cusick Road to its current end point, completed in 2000 at a cost of $9.6 million.

 

In 1995, the Knoxville Region Long Range Transportation Update identified the 4.4- mile proposed extension as an important project, and in the late 1990s, with the road coming closer to reality, sides began to form. Somewhere along the way, the General Assembly designated the extension as an “urgent need” project, something supporters still maintain to this day.

 

“The benefits for us is that it continues to allow our community to have additional interstate access, which helps us recruit businesses here,” says Bryan Daniels, president and CEO of Blount Partnership, the organization that includes the Blount County Chamber of Commerce. “Pellissippi Parkway has been vital to bringing those types of industry in, and we want to see it continue to where the community has a direct access to the Smoky Mountains.”

 

Daniels notes that he and his family intentionally chose to build their home close to the proposed extension.

 

“We knew the parkway would be coming through there; it’s easier access for us if we need to travel to other counties or want a safer route over to (U.S.) 321 (East Lamar Alexander Parkway),” he said. “We like the safety aspects it brings, and it allows someone to get on a controlled access highway to navigate Blount County.”

 

A new highway is nice, Robinson counters, but given the condition of other state-maintained roads in Blount County — such as U.S. 411, also known as Sevierville Road — CAPPE members feel strongly that any available funding should go toward improvement of those thoroughfares.

 

“My comparison is, it’s like a watch, and the watch we have is broken — we don’t need to go buy a Rolex when the watch we have can be made operational,” Robinson says. “What about Sevierville Road? What about Alcoa Highway, which is the road I’m traveling today to go to the hospital to see my dad?”

 

The project began to take shape in earnest in 1998, when the federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century included the extension in the “High Priority Projects Program.” At the time, $8.85 million was allocated to get the project off the ground, and in January of the following year, the Tennessee Department of Transportation began an environmental assessment study on the impacts of the proposed extension. No significant impacts were uncovered in that study, and planners began to move forward with acquiring property through eminent domain seizures when CAPPE filed suit in U.S. District Court, alleging that the Federal Highway Administration didn’t prepare a proper Environmental Impact Study. The court imposed a preliminary injunction that’s held up planning, financing, contracting, land acquisition and construction of the project for the past decade as TDOT has slowly worked to meet the court’s specifications.

 

TDOT released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2010, and both sides immediately rallied around the study in support of their respective arguments. Proponents point to traffic mitigation factors, the opening of the eastern part of  Blount County to increased traffic and industry and improved traffic flow between that part of the county and Knoxville.

 

CAPPE members, however, say the DEIS doesn’t demonstrate enough of an overwhelming need for the extension to warrant its existence.

 

“The burden of proof on TDOT is to say, ‘We should build this road, implement eminent domain and take these people’s properties and destroy the rural character of that part of the county,’” says singer-songwriter Jay Clark, a Rockford resident who serves as CAPPE’s current president and will host Sunday’s fundraiser at his home. “They should show a need. As far as economic development goes, they’ll be buying farmland and putting in subdivisions, so there’s no doubt some of that will happen, but that doesn’t mean it needs to happen.

 

“There wasn’t anything in the study that suggested things such as an increased level of services, an increase in the transportation of goods and services, an increase in emergency response time. Those improvements would be negligible. Really, the only thing that came out of it is, if a TDOT representative came knocking on your door saying, ‘We’re going to take your house and acreage,’ and you say, ‘You better give me a really good reason why, the only thing they can say is that it’ll save 10 minutes getting to Knoxville.

 

“Of that whole report, the only thing you can say positive is that it’ll save some people 10 minutes,” he adds. “What are we, a hotel for Knoxville?”

 

FOR IT AND AGAINST IT

A native of Winchester, Tenn., Clark has been interested in rural preservation since his work as a wildlife biologist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park made him acutely aware of how poor planning can affect the area’s natural beauty.

 

After attending the University of Tennessee and living and working for a time in Alabama, he moved to Blount County in part to be close to the mountains, and he’s been active with CAPPE ever since, ascending to the president’s post last January.

 

Wearing a Bluetick Brewery ball cap and clad in overalls, Clark is every bit the good ol’ boy of the characters in his songs, pouring over route maps and notes while Robinson waves his cavalry sword. He grins and shakes his head, marveling at the diversity of the organization’s membership.

 

“We’re just a group of people who really care about living in Blount County and where Blount County is going to be heading,” he says. “Our whole argument all along is that we want to fix what we have. If you look at 411, that’s a very highly traveled road with no shoulder whatsoever, and if you put an interstate through there, the traffic is only going to pick up. And then you’ve got roads like Alcoa Highway, which ought to be TDOT’s absolute, No. 1 priority.

 

“We do not feel like TDOT has met the burden of proof to justify why they’re going to take this land. This thing’s going to end up costing well over $100 million when it’s all said and done, and that doesn’t even count messing with the infrastructure around it.”

 

Alternative A would begin opposite the current Pellissippi Parkway/Old Knoxville Highway interchange, follow a south-southeastern path to cross Wildwood Road west of Mount Lebanon Road, south to Brown  School Road, crossing U.S. 411 east of the Davis Ford Road intersection and across Davis Ford Road to connect with East Lamar Alexander Parkway just east of Flag Branch. The estimated cost: $96.9 million, $91.5 million for construction and engineering and the rest for right-of-way acquisition of property belonging to people like Robinson and Susan and John Keller, who stand to lose a farmhouse on Brown School Road that’s more than 100 years old and has been in John’s family since 1964.

 

“My husband, son (Sam)  and I have all personally talked to our elected state officials, started back when Bill Clabough  was our state senator, and they’ve just turned deaf ears to this,” Susan says. “It’s like they have an attitude of, ‘It has to be built; it’s been planned for many  years and it needs to be finished.’ Well, it doesn’t have to be finished just because it was planned. As an example, it was planned to build the Orange Route (a 25-mile long connector planned for Knox and Loudon counties), but that was shut down; it was planned to extend the James White Parkway, but that was recently shut down. It’s a matter of our officials standing up and saying, ‘This is not what Blount County needs.’ But we can’t get them to do it.”

 

Local officials, however, say they’re sensitive to the concerns of folks like Keller, Robinson and Kim Henry — whose equine therapy farm Mane Support stands to be displaced if the extension runs through nearby property, thereby causing dust, debris and noise that will effectively make her service impossible to render — but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few.

 

“I understand that land will have to be acquired to build the parkway, and if there was a way to not have to, it would certainly be great,” Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell wrote Wednesday in response to email questions. “However, property owners will be paid for any land acquired. This is some of the same concerns that we faced when the Lamar Alexander Parkway was built through the city of Maryville. Can you imagine going through Maryville now without it?

 

“I do love Blount County, and as a sixth-generation citizen of our county, it would be great if we had the option of things staying as they are forever, but the reality of it is we are growing. The beauty of Blount County, the low cost of living and the low tax rate has made us very attractive to people from other parts of the country. With the growth comes more impact on our infrastructure, more demands on our services we provide such as schools, law enforcement, roads, etc. To do this, it requires funding increases. The citizens have made it very clear that they do not support a tax increase. Therefore, we must be willing to work recruiting new industry and commercial development. “Fortunately, we have been very successful in doing so over the last few years,” he added. “With those companies come jobs and more people to the area to live. All this means more growth.”

 

WILL IT HAPPEN?

But at what cost? The obvious answer is roughly $100 million, but that’s a dollar figure — and there’s no guarantee that money will be available. The federal transportation bill earmarked money for each state, but not for specific projects; the states then decide — within certain parameters — which roads will be built and/or improved. State Rep. Bob Ramsey — who said he supports the proposal of the extension but regrets the adverse effects it will have on those in its path — notes that right now, there’s no money specifically earmarked for the extension. It’s been handed down from the federal

government, but nowhere is there a fund marked “For Pellissippi Parkway Extension: Do no touch until construction begins.”

 

“I have sympathy for and have worked extensively with CAPPE to make an effort to get their questions answered, and they’ve asked me to ask TDOT about specific funding,” Ramsey says. “My understanding is that it’s going to be difficult each year to gain financing for the extension. As revenue sources decline and money from the federal government declines, it becomes more unlikely that it’s going to happen. It’s quite up in the air, and I would imagine that it’s going to become more difficult, day by day, as we see the Affordable Health Care Act unfold and much more emphasis and focus put on social programs that have run into difficulty. I would say the funding would probably be more and more obscure as time goes on. If indeed there is never going to be any funding, I would prefer that decision be made, so these folks can rest in peace.”

 

So who wants the road? Much of TDOT’s direction is taken from local governments, and in Blount County, Alcoa,  Maryville and county officials have all thrown their support to the project, albeit a few with some reluctance. Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor says he worries about preserving the rural character of the landscape around the project, as well as the eminent domain issues planners will have to face.

 

“When we built the new city municipal building, I had friends I had known since childhood who lost property there,” he says. “With eminent domain, you have to be really convinced that the public good is so much enhanced that it overrides individual property rights, and I guess that’s one of the issues I’m most uncomfortable with that the government deals with — but I’m more comfortable with it on a road project like that. “I’m resigned to the fact that this is a public project that is going through. I was one of the people who fought (Lamar Alexander Parkway around the downtown area) tooth and toenail, and yet I use it every day and realize it’s an integral part of the transportation plan of the city of Maryville and this region, and if we were still running traffic through downtown Maryville, it would be a horrible problem.”

 

What’s next for the project? The release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement by TDOT is expected any day now, which then kicks the process back to the Federal Highway Administration. If it’s approved on that level, a comment period will be opened, after which a final decision will be made. If the decision is in favor of the extension, the injunction against it will lift, and TDOT can begin right-of-way acquisition and engineering.

 

The members of CAPPE, however, vow to continue fighting the process all the way to the bitter end.

 

“This is our James White Parkway; however, with the James White Parkway, the local officials and political leaders were vocal in their opposition to it,” says Clark. “This ultimately got TDOT to decide not to build. Unfortunately, we do not have the same support from the local officials and political leaders in Blount County. It’s a real shame, but even if a number of the county commissioners were not that crazy about the extension, and I do believe there are a few, they would likely not voice their opposition because it would be political suicide.

 

“I hope that all of them, as well as Lamar Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam and every official who endorses this project, will take a copy of the DEIS, actually read it, and then re-evaluate whether they feel it’s needed and worth taking land and property away from citizens of Blount County to build it. If they still feel it should be built, then I would hope that they have the guts and empathy to go to each and every property owner that is losing a home or land, and with a straight face look those folks in the eye and say, ‘I’ve  read TDOT’s study, and I am sorry you are going to lose your home and land, but the PPE is really needed to make Blount County a better place to live.’

 

“Unfortunately, I don’t think they have read it or will read it, and I know they don’t have the guts to look those property owners in the eye,” he adds. “But by God, they will be on that property with a smile on when they have the photo op to ‘break ground’ and cut a ribbon to celebrate a new subdivision or Walmart.”