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Public Notices

April 16, 2014

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The 'Road To Nowhere'
Is Going Nowhere Fast

Sun Photo by O.J. Early

At the Greene/Cocke County line, the two-lane Newport Highway (St. Rt. 34/U.S. 321) in Greene County, in foreground, opens up into Cocke County’s version of the same road, featuring four lanes, a median, and wide shoulders.

Originally published: 2013-10-01 11:07:35
Last modified: 2013-10-01 11:09:12
 


Original Proposals

For Newport Hwy.,

'Bypass Around

Bypass,' Bypassed

BY KRISTEN BUCKLES

STAFF WRITER

Local officials refer to it as the "road to nowhere."

Unfortunately, that road -- State Route 34/U.S. 321, also known as the Newport Highway -- leads straight into Greene County.

The wide, four-lane highway through Cocke County becomes a two-lane road with little-to-no shoulder the minute it hits the Greene County line.

Hence, "the road to nowhere."

The First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) Rural Planning Organization's (RPO) Executive Committee met last week to review the annual ranking of major roadway projects that have been requested in the eight-county FTDD area.

The committee, comprised of area mayors, usually meets to review and, most often, also to affirm the rankings list that has been generated by the RPO's Technical Committee.

The Technical Committee, which met two weeks ago, is composed of road superintendents, engineers and those with all the technical knowledge concerning safety and highway usage.

FINAL RANKINGS

Greene County Mayor Alan Broyles went into the meeting expecting to hear in the Technical Committee rankings a continuation of the Newport Highway's now-familiar saga -- that the next segment of the road (from the Cocke/Greene county line to just over the bridge spanning the Nolichucky River in Greene County) would be at the top of the priority list, as it has been in recent years.

Instead, FTDD Assistant Executive Director Chris Craig presented a list of road-project rankings from the Technical Committee that was so different from the rankings in previous years that no member of the Executive Committee would so much as offer a motion to approve the list.

Without a motion in place, mayors were called on to submit their own rankings.

The mayors' rankings resulted in a list even more different from those in recent years than the one offered by the Technical Committee at its meeting two weeks ago.

Nonetheless, Craig said these new rankings, which he generated from the mayors' lists after the meeting and sent out via email the next day, will be the rankings that are submitted to TDOT's Project Planning Division for the division's consideration.

Final priority rankings of regional road projects by the mayors are:

* The "middle" segment of the Newport Highway from north of the bridge over the Nolichucky River to east of Pates Lane;

* The "last" segment of the Newport Highway from east of Pates Lane to U.S. 11E;

* The "bypass around the bypass," St. Rt. 34/U.S. 11E, running from west of Greeneville to east of Greeneville;

* St. Rt. 34 in Bulls Gap to south of Speedwell Road;

* St. Rt. 91 north of Cold Springs Road to the Virginia state line; and,

* The "first" segment of the Newport Highway from the Cocke County line to north of the bridge over the Nolichucky River;

* St. Rt. 31 from Mooresburg to Adams Lane.

TECH. COMM. RANKINGS

In contrast, the following are the rankings made by the Technical Committee two weeks ago:

* The "last" segment of the Newport Highway from east of Pates Lane to U.S. 11E;

* The "bypass around the bypass," St. Rt. 34/U.S. 11E, running from west of Greeneville to east of Greeneville;

* The "middle" segment of the Newport Highway from north of the bridge over the Nolichucky River to east of Pates Lane;

* St. Rt. 34 in Bulls Gap to south of Speedwell Road;

* The "first" segment of the Newport Highway from the Cocke County line to north of the bridge over the Nolichucky River;

* St. Rt. 91 north of Cold Springs Road to the Virginia state line; and,

* St. Rt. 31 from Mooresburg to Adams Lane.

'EXPEDITED PROJECTS'

Craig explained that the Technical Committee's shakeup in the prioritization from previous years is likely due to recent announcements by TDOT concerning their new "expedited project delivery" (EPD) method.

This new method of analyzing requested projects reevaluates every project to determine if the large-scale projects of previous years when the state enjoyed more federal highway funding can be pared down to smaller, cheaper projects that would still achieve at least 60 percent of the safety and efficiency that would have been achieved by the larger plan.

TDOT Commissioner John Schroer explained this approach to the Executive Committee during an unexpected presentation in March.

'FORGET WHAT YOU KN0W'

Craig explained on Wednesday that he had cautioned the Technical Committee two weeks ago to recall this new approach as the committee members made their project rankings.

"The state has asked us to prioritize these projects, not on what we think they are going to be when they are going to be built, but what is our priority," Craig said.

Accordingly, he urged the Executive Committee not to think of the Newport Highway project as the originally-proposed four-lane realignment of the existing highway that wound through farm land -- even though TDOT has actually started its property acquisition process for the new highway.

That acquisition process, Craig said, has been halted.

"[The changes in the Newport Highway that TDOT decides to make, given current financial circumstances] could very well be safety improvements along [the current] route to improve safety and decrease congestion," he said.

Technical Committee Chairman John Deakins explained that the committee had been told 1) to "forget what you know about the projects," and 2) that "any improvements to be made will probably be safety improvements."

He concluded by stating that the Newport Highway improvements near Cocke County would only be fixes to the shoulders, some realignment of intersections, and adjustments to curves.

"The way we have ranked may not mean anything," he added. "They may do what they have the money to do."

Craig and other officials reminded the Executive Committee that TDOT has $9 billion worth of projects in the planning stages and only about $300 million to spend on new projects this year.

TDOT DATA

"All of the sections [of the new Newport Highway in Greene County] are needed," Broyles replied. "But why would one want to start on the other end and meet in the center? Why not come from the Cocke County side [and build toward Greeneville]?"

His question was in reference to the priority rankings of the three sections of the Newport Highway that had been given two weeks ago by the Technical Committee, with the sections closest to Greeneville ranked before the section closest to the Greene/Cocke county line.

Craig replied that he could not speak for the Technical Committee, but he noted that their top two rankings align with information he had provided to them concerning traffic volume and capacity, as well as the frequency of crashes.

For example, he said, the "last" segment of the Newport Highway project (from east of Pates Lane to U.S. 11E) is currently at the highest traffic capacity (70 percent) of the projects on the RPO list, is the worst-graded of all the projects for level of service (C), and has the highest crash rate of the various projects on the list.

The Greeneville bypass project is at the second-highest capacity (61 percent) and was graded at a 'B' for level of service, according to the information TDOT provided.

All other projects are, at most, at a 28 percent capacity and have an 'A' for their level of service, Craig noted.

Also notable, however, was that the portion of the Newport Highway project closest to the Cocke County line had the lowest crash rate -- but the highest severity rate when crashes do occur.

TDOT Project Manager Ray Henson also quietly noted during the meeting that the bridge over the Nolichucky River that is a part of the first section of the Newport Highway project was originally scheduled for replacement.

"The bridge will have to be replaced ... somehow, eventually," he said.

MAYORS REACT

Broyles opened the discussion of the new approach to planned TDOT projects by asking, in essence: With an entirely new list and change of projects, what can we tell our constituents in our counties?

Many of the representatives present seemed to share the concern Broyles expressed.

Moreover, it was treated as an obvious fact by the committee members that the rankings were merely suggestions given to TDOT, and that TDOT would do what it would based on the money it had to spend and what it deemed most appropriate.

"'We don't have the answers -- it's all up to the state.' That's the only thing we can tell [inquiring citizens]," Broyles said. "'Contact so-and-so.'

"No exaggeration," he continued, "I bet you I've had at least 50 citizens walk in and say, 'Do you have any information at all? We're dying to know what's going to happen.'

"The only thing I've known to tell them is that the next phase is from the Cocke County line to Bright Hope Road. Now I guess I'm more confused."

Hawkins County Mayor Melville Bailey shared these objections.

"People look to us for answers," he said.

CITIZENS LEFT 'IN LIMBO'

It was a point to which members of the Executive Committee continued to return, with no real answers provided.

"As mayors of the counties, we need to know through our office what to tell people. Or, if we can't tell them, we need to know who to call," Broyles said.

"I don't think it's fair to keep these people in complete limbo, bouncing this thing around.

"Are we just going to throw up our hands and say, 'Listen, we just don't know?' That's the concern I've got."

Broyles also expressed his concern with trying to rank other projects that he knows nothing about that are in other counties.

The Greene County mayor emphasized that TDOT should bring in its experts, evaluate the needs, and tell the local representatives exactly what is going to happen when the money is available.

"They're not going to do what you're saying," Deakins replied. "TDOT won't prioritize jobs for you."

"That's a shame," Broyles responded. "That's their job."

 
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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