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Commish Cancels, Modifies More Than $1B in TN Road Jobs

Wed November 12, 2003 - Southeast Edition

CROSSVILLE and NASHVILLE, TN (AP) Tennessee’s transportation commissioner canceled a planned $15-million project on U.S. Highway 64 in Bradley and Polk counties, saying nobody wanted it.

“We could not find any support,” Commissioner Gerald Nicely said at a Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) news conference at Cumberland Mountain State Park.

“A number of issues contributed to our decision, including the economic and environmental impact of that planned project,” he said.

Two other projects — one on U.S. 127 north of Crossville and the other on U.S. 127 south of Crossville — would be significantly changed after they are reviewed by project teams that TDOT will appoint, Nicely said.

“Local officials and citizens will be consulted about design modifications,” he said.

State Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, attended the announcement and said the decision to cancel the planned $15-million project on U.S. 64 marked a new era for TDOT.

Bredesen’s administration is no longer starting projects “just because you’ve got the money and you are going to spend it,” Newton said. “I think that day is over.”

The Nashville Beltway

On Oct. 31, TDOT announced that it plans to modify and finish the southern portion of a controversial Nashville beltway, but the northern segment is on “indefinite hold,” Tennessee’s top highway official said.

Nicely said he didn’t think he had the authority to cancel the 108-mi. (174 km) northern portion of the State Road 840, approved by the legislature as part of a 1986 roads program funded by dedicated fuel taxes.

But he said researchers at TDOT and the University of Tennessee found the route does “not appear to meet a documented transportation need.” The project also lacked input from transportation planners and community representatives, and it was estimated to cost more than $1 billion. Only $3 million has been spent so far.

“At this point it appears the costs outweigh the need,” Nicely said during a news conference at Long Hunter State Park. Some of the money instead will be spent improving existing roads in the area.

State Route 840 North would have begun at Interstate 40 near Lebanon in Wilson County and ended at I-40 in Dickson County. It would have cut through Sumner, Robertson, Dickson, and either Cheatham or Montgomery counties –– depending on the route.

State Rep. Tommy Head, D-Clarksville, was disappointed with the decision but said he hopes TDOT will build a better road connecting Clarksville to Dickson. “There are a lot of trucks coming up and down Highway 48, which is like a snake and very dangerous,” he said.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, said 840 North would have helped economic development in rural areas. “There’s just no good way to get to some of these places. But it’s on definite hold. It’s not dead yet.”

Residents welcomed the news of the projects postponement but wish it hadn’t taken so long.

Donald Turner of Lebanon suggested that in the future, state officials purchase property when they announce the route. “I’ve been held hostage for 10 years on this property because I couldn’t sell it. Nobody wants a road cutting through their property.”

The 78-mi. (126 km) south loop of 840 will be completed in late 2008 at a total cost of approximately $500 million, state officials said. However, design changes will be made to the three unfinished segments totaling 22.4 mi. (36 km).

“The road is in the final stages of development, but the final stages will be done right,” Nicely said.

The four-lane highway passes through Wilson, Rutherford, WIlliamson, Hickman and Dickson counties.

The unfinished segments in Williamson County have been opposed by some residents and targeted by lawsuits claiming construction is damaging to the environment. The changes are meant to minimize that damage, state officials said.

But one area resident, Gene Vernon, asked Nicely how TDOT could “blatantly ignore” the wishes of four county governments and change plans to place an SR 840 interchange near his home.

Nicely said no one was ignored and that the state would save $3.4 million by building an interchange where there are fewer water crossings to deal with.

The SR 840 segment from Interstate 40 near Lebanon to Interstate 65 near Franklin already has opened.

Additional Projects

TDOT announced recently that it will return proposed Wolf River Parkway and Walnut Grove Road projects to local government for any further development.

“This is a local government project that is locally funded and is the responsibility of the City of Germantown and the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization,” said Nicely of the Wolf River project at a news conference at T.O. Fuller State Park in Memphis, TN.

The agency canceled a project that would have involved the construction of a highway designed to serve as a bypass around the eastern side of the the city of Jackson.

“The proposed bypass was not part of an established long-range plan for the Jackson area and TDOT will not take it forward,” Nicely said.

Nicely also said he decided to “cancel as currently designed” a proposed state Route 451 project north of Cookeville in Putnam and Jackson counties.

Design work on an an additional project — widening U.S. 321 in Gatlinburg — was being continued but with major changes, Nicely said.

A Hotbed of Emotion

The cancelations or changes are part of 15 projects — with a total projected cost of more than $1 billion — that were delayed and referred to the University of Tennessee’s Center for Transportation Research to be reviewed “based largely on comments the governor had received during the 2002 campaign.”

The delayed projects were planned or started during former Gov. Don Sundquist’s administration.

In reviewing the projects, the center found examples of TDOT failing to get adequate public comment, failing to justify some planned construction, giving inadequate attention to alternatives and in some cases ignoring the environment.

The independent UT study involved a series of “listening sessions” conducted around the state. It focused on collecting information from citizens, communities, city planners and government officials about how the projects were deemed necessary in the first place. The second study goal was to provide input for TDOT to identify areas for improvement of its highway planning, business and communications practices.

Nicely has said among changes he is making at TDOT is giving increased attention to “reserving the historic, scenic and cultural assets of a community where a highway is built, from the very beginning, in order to achieve excellence in design and maintain harmony in that community.”

But the changes have infuriated road builders. An article in the Tennessee Road Builders Association magazine said the new rules defy engineering logic and favor “build-nothing extremists.”

Nicely met Oct. 23 with roadbuilders, one day after he announced that contentious highway projects in Greene and Sullivan counties were being sent back to local officials for changes.