The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Opponents of Pellissippi Parkway extension cite high cost, environmental damage and changing commuting habits

Written by

img 2460State and local officials want to expand another ‘road to nowhere’ by way of the controversial $200 million Pellissippi Parkway extension in Blount County.   Lesli Bales-Sherrod/Hellbender Press

The newest road to nowhere

The former “missing link” of the Foothills Parkway. The “road to nowhere” in Bryson City, North Carolina. Blount County, Tennessee, has its own unfinished road project, without the catchy nickname: the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.This proposed 4.4-mile stretch of four-lane highway would lengthen State Route 162, known as Pellissippi Parkway, from where it ends at Old Knoxville Highway (State Route 33) to East Lamar Alexander Highway (State Route 73/U.S. 321) in Maryville.

The project, which would impact 56 properties and cost at least $60 million, is not without controversy. Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension, “believe(s) this interstate highway is not needed, wastes state resources and will have negative impacts on the area along the route and on the quality of life in Blount County as a whole,” according to the group’s website, saveitdontpaveit.org. Besides loss of farmland, residences and businesses, CAPPE’s concerns include sprawl, traffic, water and air quality, noise, economic impact and the destruction of wildlife habitat and increased rates of roadkill.

State and local government officials, however, maintain the Pellissippi Parkway Extension will address needs such as “limited mobility options in Blount County and Maryville, poor local road network with substandard cross sections (with narrow lanes, sharp curves, and insufficient shoulders), lack of a northwest/east connection east of Alcoa and Maryville, safety issues on roadways in the area, and traffic congestion and poor levels of traffic operation on major arterial roads and intersections,” according to the Record of Decision signed by the Federal Highway Administration on Aug. 31, 2017.

The Pellissippi Parkway Extension has been part of the Knoxville regional transportation planning vision since 1977, according to a 2010 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and has a long, storied history -- complete with a 2002 lawsuit from CAPPE, seeking to stop it. Nothing has happened publicly, however, since the Record of Decision selected a preferred route for the new stretch of road, which would cross Old Knoxville Highway, Wildwood Road, Brown School Road, Sevierville Road and Davis Ford Road before terminating near Morning Star Baptist Church in Maryville.  

The project is still in the preliminary design phase, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

“The next milestone for the proposed project is a public design meeting,” Region 1 Community Relations Officer Mark Nagi said in an email. “However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the Department with some challenges on hosting public meetings. Currently we are working with FHWA to identify an acceptable method to hold public meetings that would meet federal requirements.”
TDOT anticipates holding the public design meeting “sometime in spring 2021,” Nagi said.

The rationale

CAPPE has contended since it was chartered in 2002 that the road never was needed -- especially not now.

“A lot of time has passed since this was first proposed, and a lot has changed in our community,” said CAPPE board member Nina Gregg. “We still maintain that there is no significant problem the Pellissippi Parkway Extension solves. The residential, commercial, retail and industrial growth and traffic congestion are on the western side of the county. The extension will do nothing to address travel and safety needs of residents, workers and businesses in that area.”
CAPPE pointed out in public comments in 2015 that the Final Environmental Impact Statement “demonstrates that the ‘Preferred Alternative’ option and the ‘No-Build’ option yield virtually identical projected levels of service in terms of outcomes for net traffic function.” 

TDOT responded that CAPPE’s comment was correct, but that “intersection delay and travel time savings are other valid measures of traffic operations,” according to Appendix A-2 in the Record of Decision.

The Pellissippi Parkway Extension “is still a priority project for the department,” said Nagi, the TDOT spokesman, noting the project was identified in TDOT’s three-year plan to be budgeted for right of way activities in fiscal year 2020.

“As part of the traffic analysis for the development of the environmental document, future projects and growth were considered,” he said. “The selected alternative, as shown in the (Record of Decision), still meets the purpose and need for the proposed project.”

Those needs were identified between April 2006 and February 2008, according to the Record of Decision, and include, but are not limited to, 

  • Lack of a northwest/east connection east of Alcoa and Maryville to help serve expanding residential development;
  • Demand for trips between Maryville and Alcoa and the Knoxville area to the north as shown by current high traffic volumes between the areas on U.S. 129 (approximately 40,090 vehicles per day) and State Route 33 (approximately 6,230 vehicles per day); and;
  • Safety issues on roadways in the area, including roads in the Maryville core.

“We’ve never built a road before it was needed,” said Maryville City Manager Greg McClain, who grew up in Blount County. “The biggest draw of Maryville, Tennessee, is that it is an awesome place to live. One magazine listed Maryville as the 9th best place to live in the country. Growth is going to happen whether we build roads or not. The Pellissippi Parkway Extension is a reflection of trying to rise up and meet that growth.”

McClain said the city believes the project is “very important and there are a lot of reasons for it.” He pointed to the newer stretch of U.S. 321 that runs behind the Maryville Municipal Center and in front of Maryville College before reconnecting in the curve where Washington Street becomes East Lamar Alexander Parkway.

“Prior to that being built, all the traffic from 411 and 321 went through downtown, but the theory that the bypass hurt downtown is a misnomer,” he said. “It actually helped our downtown by taking through traffic off those roads. Or look at the bypass from the airport to National Fitness Center. Before then, all the Alcoa Highway traffic had to travel down Hall Road and turn right through downtown.”

McClain sees the Pellissippi Parkway Extension helping local residents by taking tourists directly to the mountains, relieving congestion through Alcoa and Maryville.

“We already have pretty significant issues during the day,” he said. “In the absence of this relief valve taking cars off the road, we will see Hall Road and Washington Street in gridlock.”

CAPPE doesn’t see it that way.

“Not only have traffic patterns and our road system changed tremendously since the 2015 FEIS and the traffic studies cited in the FEIS that are even older, changes in our driving habits started with the 2008 recession,” Gregg said. “People aren’t driving as much, and we have seen this during the pandemic. The way we work, live, do school, socialize and recreate will be forever changed by the pandemic. So much can be done virtually, and we won’t have everybody who commuted to work commuting again.”  

She also questioned the rationale for routing motorists away from the small, locally owned businesses in downtown Maryville or the mixed-use development the city of Alcoa is building on the former ALCOA Inc. West Plant site across from McGhee Tyson Airport.

McClain said marketing, including geofencing, can be used to direct those traveling to the Smokies to the restaurants and shops in downtown Maryville, which he noted would be a short drive from the planned Pellissippi Parkway Extension interchange at Sevierville Road.

“‘Turn right here and in three minutes you can be in historic downtown Maryville,’” the city manager said, noting Maryville is in the process of improving and widening Sevierville Road to what would be “a really nice three-lane all the way out” to the Pellissippi Parkway Extension. “Those drivers will have direct access to the center of town and will miss Alcoa Highway and all of that stuff.

“It’s not just the through traffic,” McClain added. “It will also be more convenient for the people who live here.”

Officials with the city of Alcoa did not respond to requests for interviews about the Pellissippi Parkway Extension, while the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization deferred to TDOT.

The people and the land

TDOT estimates the Pellissippi Parkway Extension would impact 56 properties. One of those is part of a farm owned by John and Susan Keller on East Brown School Road. The 52 acres the extension would bisect, known as the old Howard place, is used to raise soybeans, corn and rye -- and was the first no-till soybean field in Tennessee, John Keller said.
John and Susan KellerJohn and Susan Keller pose on their farm on East Brown School Road.   Lesli Bales-Sherrod /Hellbender Press

 “We’ve been dealing with this for 18 years,” said Susan Keller, who arranged the first community meeting on the project at the Blount County Courthouse, having rented the room and paid for an ad in the local newspaper herself. “We’re talking 200 acres for four miles of road, when we already have roads that go where this one is going. We already have four-lanes through Maryville and Alcoa.”

The Federal Highway Administration selected the route referred to as the “2012 Preferred Alternative (A) modified by the West Shift” because it has lower overall impacts, according to the Record of Decision, including “the least number of residential displacements” and the “greatest physical distance/separation from Little River.” The route chosen would result in 11 single-family relocations, according to the Record of Decision -- six within the Kensington Place mobile home community. While the Kellers would not lose the house on their property, where they lived as newlyweds 54 years ago, they were not comforted.

“They gave three reasons they chose this route, and one of them was that it was mainly open, undeveloped land,” Susan Keller said. “It’s farmland! You can’t farm if the land is developed. Yet they said this route would only take one business, an old gas station that’s now a used car lot. Farms were not considered businesses.”
TDOT said in comments in the Record of Decision that farms were not included in business displacements because the project would not displace any individual farms as complete entities, instead taking “a portion of several individual farms.” 
The agency also noted in the Record of Decision that the route would cut through an area within the established Urban Growth Boundary and that “land in this area is already physically changing from farmlands to both residential and commercial uses.”

“I’m a proponent of urbanizing the core, driving the growth inward and leaving the rural areas alone,” McClain said. “One of the things that limits density is sewer, but today there are technologies like sand filters that allow treatment on site, which can allow more density in rural areas. How do you tell people who have farms not to sell to developers and make millions of dollars?”

Susan Keller noted a majority of CAPPE’s membership are people who are not losing property “or going to have this in their backyard.”
“These are people concerned about the future of Blount County,” she said.

The environment

The Kellers, who farm a total 800 of acres in Blount County, also worry about the effect the Pellissippi Parkway Extension would have on the area’s water supply.

“The road would cross Peppermint Branch, which flows directly into Little River, the main water source of Blount County,” said John Keller, standing where the Pellissippi Parkway Extension would be on his farm.
Pat Rakes, co-director of Conservation Fisheries Inc. in Knoxville, said his main concern about the Pellissippi Parkway Extension as a biologist/zoologist is how its construction would affect Little River, which is home to some 95 native species of fish. 

One of those, the marbled darter, is found only in Little River, near the mouth of Pistol Creek, he noted.

“The proposed Pellissippi Parkway Extension crosses several tributaries of Little River,” Rakes said. “And if you build the Pellissippi Parkway Extension, you foster development -- roads, housing. Anything that removes vegetation from the earth causes silt and sediment.”

Fish are sensitive to silt and sediment, he explained. The marbled darter, for example, lays its eggs on the underside of flat rocks, and silt and sediment would clog the undersides of those rocks, affecting reproduction. Other species of darters bury their eggs in sand, and those eggs could be smothered by silt and sediment, he added.

“Silt and sediment also bury food for non-game fish,” Rakes said. “It’s an ecosystem, and development impacts aquatic habitat and all the beautiful diverse species who live there. Development around flowing water is never anything but trouble.”

Other environmental concerns include air quality.

“It was not that long ago that our region was not in compliance for particulate matter,” Gregg said. “Building more highways for more automobile and truck traffic won’t keep our air clean. Governments committed to sustainability are removing interstates, building walkable cities and investing in mass transit.”

The cost

TDOT estimates the Pellissippi Parkway Extension would cost between $60 million and $65 million, although the TPO’s Mobility Plan 2040 has the project estimated to cost $194,154,504 in “Horizon Year 2026” dollars.

Nagi explained the discrepancy in the figures by a change in methodology between when those estimates were calculated, with the 2040 Mobility Plan finalized around the end of 2016 while the $60-65 million estimate was prepared by TDOT in June 2017 for inclusion in the governor’s IMPROVE Act.

“Project estimates are generated at various stages of development,” he said. “In preparation of the public design meeting this year, the Department will be developing an updated estimate based off actual preliminary design versus a conceptual drawing.”

TDOT anticipates entering the right-of-way appraisal and acquisition phase 6-9 months after the public design meeting is held this spring, pending available funding.

“Given the number of impacted properties, we anticipate the right of way process will take approximately 18-24 months to complete before the project could be eligible to receive funding to begin construction activities,” Nagi said.

CAPPE questions why TDOT would proceed with acquiring right of way from property owners if the federal government has not committed the funds needed to build the extension.

“Spending money on right of way with no assurance that you have money for construction is grossly irresponsible,” Gregg said. “Everything is pending funding right now. Where do we actually need to invest to make people’s mobility better and safer? Spending nearly $200 million on the extension won’t help people on Montvale Road or Morganton Road. Along with maintaining what we have, there are many road projects that will solve real needs, and this is where our tax dollars should go.”

The Kellers agree.

“Just think of the money!” Susan Keller said. “The last figure was close to $200 million to build this little stretch of road. Should we not be fixing the roads we have? And why would you purchase right of way if you aren’t going to have the money to build the road? What would that mean to property owners? Would the land just grow up?”

CAPPE will continue monitoring TDOT’s actions on the Pellissippi Parkway Extension, staying engaged and participating in the public processes, Gregg said.

“If this project were started now, it would be harder to defend,” she said. “We don’t need to continue with an idea from 40 years ago if it’s a bad idea.”

McClain, the city manager of Maryville, doesn’t want the state to stop now, noting that cities can get “saturated” with traffic.

“They’re saying it will be another five years before we’re driving on it, so that means it’s going take 50 years to get the Pellissippi Parkway Extension from concept to realization,” he said. “We don’t want to start over, or we will never see it in our lifetimes. If we wait another 20 to 30 years, I think we’d be in real trouble.”

Rate this item
(4 votes)

Related items

  • Water and waste on TVA agenda as utility plans Bull Run shutdown
    in News

    TVA’s Bull Run Fossil Plant — then and nowBull Run Fossil Plant in Claxton, Tennessee, was originally commissioned 55 years ago but TVA is now soliciting public input on the best way to shut down operations. Tennessee Valley Authority

    TVA solicits public input following release of environmental assessment for Bull Run Fossil Plant decommission

    CLAXTON — Tennessee Valley Authority plans to close its Bull Run Fossil Plant (BRF) in Anderson County, but it’s still looking for public input on what comes next.

    “As a large, inflexible coal unit with medium operating costs and a high forced outage rate, BRF does not fit current and likely future portfolio needs,” the federal utility said in a draft Environmental Assessment.

    TVA is looking at three different options for the future of the structures still standing on the site by the Clinch River near Oak Ridge: taking down all structures; taking down some of them; or leaving everything standing. A recent report lays out the environmental consequences of each of these actions. The report, in draft form, is against that third choice, listing it as only an option for the sake of comparison.

    “If the facility is left in the “as-is” condition, it likely would present a higher risk than Alternatives A or B for the potential to contaminate soil and groundwater as systems and structures degrade. As such, this alternative is not a reasonable alternative,” the draft states.

    TVA stated its considering removing “all or most of the buildings and structures” on a 250-acre area. After closing the plant, but before any demolitions, TVA will begin by removing components that may be used at other TVA sites, draining of oil and fluids from equipment, taking ash out of the boilers, removing information technology assets, removing plant records and other tasks.

    The Bull Run Environmental Assessment is 170 pages long and available for public review. It doesn’t directly tackle the coal ash storage conundrum that has grabbed the attention of politicians, nearby residents and environmental activists, because that issue involves separate regulations. 

  • Updated: Smokies crews recover drowned Knoxville kayaker

    TOWNSEND — Smokies recovery teams on Monday found the body of Carl Keaney, 61, of Knoxville, in the Little River.

    Keaney was last seen kayaking the Sinks during high flow when he vanished under water, prompting calls to Great Smoky Mountains National Park rangers who, along with other local crews, proceeded to search for his body for three days.

    Here’s the previous Hellbender Press report:

    Teams are searching for a missing kayaker in what Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials are now calling a “recovery operation” after a 61-year-old man disappeared underwater while boating above the Sinks on Little River. High water levels from recent heavy rains are making search and recovery difficult.

    “Around 3:40 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 16 Great Smoky Mountains National Park dispatch received a call that a 61-year-old man had disappeared underwater while kayaking above The Sinks and did not resurface,” according to a news release from the park. 

    “Park rangers, along with emergency personnel from Townsend Fire Department and Blount Special Operations Response Team are on scene searching for the kayaker. High water level from recent rain is complicating recovery efforts. Little River Road from Metcalf Bottoms to the Townsend Wye is closed to accommodate emergency traffic.”

    No more information is immediately available. This story will be updated.

  • Seeing the city for the trees
    in News

    IMG 2632This mighty oak is but one of many growing for decades in South Knoxville.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

    Contribute to the master plan to grow tree canopy in Knoxville

    KNOXVILLE — No matter where you are in the city, you’re not far from a patch or two of trees.

    These copses range from small groupings of oaks or dogwoods that are commonly used to mark property boundaries to lush belts of temperate mixed-hardwood forest that sprawl across hundreds of acres. 

    While Knoxville may be blessed with an abundance of these urban forests, many local residents and leaders believe it’s nowhere near enough.

  • Help control invasive exotic plants Saturday at Oak Ridge cedar barrens

    Oak Ridge Cedar Barrens fall 2022

     

    OAK RIDGE — The Oak Ridge Cedar Barren will again be the site of exotic invasive plant removal on Saturday, Nov. 5 as we conduct our fall cleanup, our third and final cleanup of the year.  Located next to Jefferson Middle School in Oak Ridge, the Barren is a joint project of the City of Oak Ridge, State Natural Areas Division, and Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning. The area is one of just a few cedar barrens in East Tennessee, and is subject to invasion by bushy lespedeza, leatherleaf viburnum, privet, autumn olive, mimosa, Nepal grass, multiflora rose, and woody plants that threaten the system’s prairie grasses. Our efforts help to eliminate invasives and other shade-producing plants that prevent the prairie grasses from getting needed sunlight.

    Volunteers should meet in the Jefferson Middle School Parking lot at 9 a.m., with sturdy shoes, loppers, gloves, and water.  The work session will conclude at noon with a pizza lunch. For more information, contact Tim Bigelow at 865-607-6781 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

    Hellbender Press reported in detail on last year’s Cedar Barren spring cleanup.

  • Advance Knox envisions three trajectories for development in Knox County, wants your opinion by Oct. 31
    in News

    Advance Knox Choices WeekAdvance Knox proposes three growth scenarios for the future of the unincorporated areas of Knox County.

    If you missed the community meetings and the Zoom event during Advance Knox’s “Choices Week,” you can still take the survey online!

    If you are unfamiliar with the Advance Knox project, you may find it helpful to watch the first 19 minutes of the Choices Week webinar recording before taking the survey.

    Advance Knox is a process to prepare a land use and transportation plan for Knox County that is informed by research and community input,” according to its website.

    In March 2022, Advance Knox offered a first round of public input opportunities during its “Ideas Week.”  As reported in Hellbender Press, community meetings were held all over the county. Participation opportunities at special group presentations, a Zoom webinar, and individual commenting on the website were similar to those of Choices Week.

  • Public comment: Environmental group leaders say TVA makes input difficult
    in News

    Handout from TVA Listening Session Aug. 30 2022Scott Banbury with the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club said a handout provided at TVA’s Aug. 30 listening session stated recordings of the meeting were not allowed; a TVA spokesperson said recordings are, in fact, allowed. Flyer provided by Scott Banbury

    Is TVA trying to gag its critics?

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE — While the Tennessee Valley Authority, a utility company that provides power to millions in Tennessee and other states, allows for public input into decisions, the process isn’t simple or transparent, say some regular attendees.

    Take, for instance, a recent public listening session: representatives of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club say they were told they could not record the session despite a spokesman for TVA saying the opposite.

    According to TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks, attendees are always allowed to record public meetings, provided they don’t cause a disturbance, but minutes before the session, members of the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club were prohibited from doing so.

  • Lost and found: The long-awaited return of the robust redhorse
    in News

     

    Georgia’s Ocmulgee River is a case study in the decline of Southern river fisheries, and their revival

    Ethan Hatchett is a writer for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

    MACON — The Ocmulgee River has changed. The cloudy water once ran clear. The sandy bottom was once rocky. Fish swam upriver to breed from places as distant as the Altamaha River, which the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers join to form near Lumber City and the Atlantic Ocean.

    European settlement changed the river. Centuries of agriculture and development stripped away much of the land’s vegetation that filtered the flow, causing the Ocmulgee to fill with sediment. The soil particles gradually moved through the waterway, covering gravel that fish spawned in, smothering fishes’ eggs, mucking up the water and even building up on the banks, saturating the ground with sediment.

    It is impossible to know how many freshwater fish the Ocmulgee lost since the first Europeans arrived. Many species disappeared without being discovered. Yet on a clear afternoon in May, DNR aquatics biologist Paula Marcinek led a team on the upper Ocmulgee in search of robust redhorse, a “lost” fish found in 1991.

    Read DNR’s blog post about efforts to restore the robust redhorse, plus news of a new grant that will expand the work and rare video of these fish spawning.

  • Opponents of Oak Ridge waste dump, citing comms breakdown, urge extension of public comment period
    How and why did things go wrong at the EMWMFImage from a 2018 memorandum authored by experts including former Department of Energy employees in Oak Ridge. EMWMF is the present landfill that has a history of failures and is reaching capacity. Ecologists say, after a decade DOE still is not adequately addressing waste acceptance criteria and feasible alternatives.

     

    Public can comment in person Tuesday night in Oak Ridge on proposed DOE waste dump

    OAK RIDGE — The Southern Environmental Law Center blistered the Department of Energy in a letter ahead of a May 17 hearing on construction of a toxic-waste landfill that opponents said poses contamination threats to portions of the Clinch River watershed and downstream TVA reservoirs.

    The hearing is set for 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 17 at the Pollard Technology Conference Center, 210 Badger Ave. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. will be accepted through June 7.

    The Department of Energy wants to bury contaminated debris from demolition of Manhattan Project-era complexes and associated legacy toxins from the Oak Ridge Reservation. The drawn-out debate about how best to safely store the materials now focuses on the transparency of the decision process and the health of the Bear Creek watershed and downstream pollution threats to the Clinch River. 

  • Smokies rangers, swift-water teams retrieve body from Little River near Metcalf

    TOWNSEND — Great Smoky Mountains National Park rangers responded to a report of a body in Little River about a mile west of Metcalf Bottoms at 1:30 p.m. May 9. Rangers and Gatlinburg EMS/Fire discovered the body of Charles Queen, age 72 of Bybee, Tennessee, partially submerged in the middle of the river.

  • TDOT wants your input on electric-vehicle infrastructure

    1650898862011Proposed electric-vehicle infrastructure corridors in Tennessee. TDOT

    Inside of Knoxville: State seeks input on charging stations, EV corridors

    (Update: The survey has now ended.) The Tennessee Department of Transportation’s traveling and electrifying road show made an appearance in Knoxville this week. The intent of the meeting, as others scheduled around the state, was to collect public feedback on proposed charging station networks and other components of EV infrastructure.

    Tennessee will receive a significant chunk of change toward developing its own share of National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure, provided as part of the infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year. The state will receive $88 million over five years, and has begun drafting some options.