The resolution, sponsored by commissioners Nick Bright, Jeff Jopling and Steve Mikals, originally used the verb “urge,” but was amended to “encourage” after a motion by vice chairman Rick Carver passed 17-1, according to minutes of the meeting provided by the Blount County Mayor’s office.
“We did receive the letter from the Blount County Commission, and we do plan to follow up with an in-person public design meeting, in conjunction with the virtual meeting,” said Mark Nagi, TDOT community affairs director.
“We are currently looking for a location and a date to hold that in-person meeting, but there is no timeframe right now,” he said by email.
“After all comments have been addressed, the department will begin finalizing the Right of Way plans for the project,” Nagi said. “Currently the department anticipates starting the Right of Way process for the project by late 2021 to early 2022 pending available funding.
The proposed 4.7-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. It would cross Old Knoxville Highway, and Wildwood, Brown School, Sevierville and Davis Ford roads along the way. The proposed improvements include completing the existing interchange at Old Knoxville Highway and constructing a new interchange at Sevierville Road (State Route 35/U.S. 411).
Opponents say the roadway is unnecessary and destructive. Detractors contend it would slice through farmland, fields and forests, displace homeowners and lead to urban sprawl at the very base of the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Local biologists said in previous Hellbender reporting that the parkway extension would endanger the water quality of Little River, which much of the county depends on for drinking water, and subsequently damage the remarkably diverse population of fishes such as darters and other aquatic life in the river.
TDOT held a “Virtual Public Design Meeting” open to the public for two weeks in April. A map, a handout and a “video flythrough” were linked from TDOT’s website in advance of the virtual meeting and are still online.
“Approximately 225-275 comments were received via the virtual meeting website and 100-150 comment cards were received during the 21-day comment period after the meeting closed on April 29, 2021,” Nagi said.
“The department is still in the process of compiling, reviewing and addressing all the comments that have been received. Exact numbers on positive and negative feedback are not currently available.”
“Comments submitted through the project website will be addressed and become part of the official public transcript,” as will “written statements and other exhibits” submitted within 21 days after the meeting closed, according to the handout on the project.
The meeting to view the proposed design and provide feedback was held virtually because of COVID-19.
“... (T)he COVID-19 pandemic has presented the Department with some challenges on hosting public meetings,” Nagi told Hellbender Press earlier this year, noting TDOT was working with the Federal Highway Administration “to identify an acceptable method to hold public meetings that would meet federal requirements.”
Opponents of the Pellissippi Parkway extension lambasted the original virtual format of a public meeting for such a contentious project.
“This is a wholly inadequate platform for public learning and comment on the proposed new highway,” the nonprofit Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension wrote in a public response to TDOT published in The Daily Times on April 24.
“The site is extremely confusing to navigate, assumes a degree of familiarity with digital communication that many residents do not have, ignores basic criteria for accessibility (visibility, manual dexterity, intuitive process, closed captions) in online communication and online access when we have a digital divide throughout Blount County regarding bandwidth and equipment.
“CAPPE spent hours developing supplemental materials to guide our members through TDOT’s virtual meeting. TDOT should have waited until we can meet in person, have a public conversation and everyone could participate in the discussion.”
Nagi, of TDOT, noted that “The intent of the public design meeting was not to elicit feedback for support or opposition of the project, but to receive and discuss comments concerning the proposed design.”
That design includes two 12-foot travel lanes in each direction separated by a concrete median barrier wall, according to the project description provided by TDOT.
The project also includes a greenway that would run parallel to the Pellissippi Parkway Extension between Wildwood Road and Sevierville Road. The proposed greenway would be constructed along Sevierville Road between the exit ramp of the Pellissippi Parkway Extension and Davis Ford Road as well.
Retaining walls would be constructed along the route to minimize impacts to adjacent properties. TDOT estimates the Pellissippi Parkway Extension would impact 56 properties, including 11 single-family relocations, six of which are within the Kensington Place mobile home community.