The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

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

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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.”

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