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Driving Us Crazy

Sure Knoxville traffic isn't as bad as other cities - but who cares? It still sucks!

by Val Pendergrast
It's the Friday before Christmas and rush-hour traffic is raised to the 10th power. The roads are littered with cars bearing Georgia, Michigan, Florida, and Ohio tags as Christmas travelers wind their way through East Tennessee, merging and passing the locals making their way home or out to do some last minute shopping. Those in the know have their radio tuned to B-97.5 or 103.5, waiting for a familiar voice to give them the low-down on the slow-down.

"Just in: We've had a report of a wreck--possible injuries involved--on Kingston Pike near Downtown West--do give way, emergency crews heading there now. Clearing one on Sam Lee at Steele--that's just off Hardin Valley, also one at West Emory at Ridgefield."

Linda Stern, Knoxville's high priestess of traffic, monitors her police scanner as she prepares to take to the skies with pilot Ron Crews for a bird's-eye view of the weekday oxymoron known as rush-hour.

Flying in circles above the city, Stern and Crews survey the minute-to-minute mayhem as commuters leave their offices for home and shoppers dash home with their treasures.

4:30: I-40 traffic is flowing smoothly considering additional volume from the out-of-towners, but the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County's Sheriff's Department already have five accidents to clear.

4:45: Cars line Lovell Road from I-40 halfway to Kingston

Pike. Broadway looks bad, and a wreck at 44th and Western has 44th looking like a parking lot. The recently completed Cedar Bluff/ Middlebrook intersection is blessedly clear, but it's messy nearer Kingston Pike.

5:00: Kingston Pike is still surprisingly clear at Western Plaza, but thickens like pea soup within two miles. By the I-40/640 interchange, traffic is mostly stop, not go. The "inch-me-pinch-me" has begun.

Aaaah. Traffic. There's nothing quite like it to turn the most mild-mannered commuter into a raving maniac. Unless you're walking, you're destined to be mired in the thick of it one time or another. It's the common thread that binds us to every other sane--or temporarily insane--driver on the road. We all suffer that same lack of control when we're the sixth car in line at the light and the bozo in the lead chatting on his cell phone hasn't noticed the light has turned GREEN. Doesn't he know we've got to pick up the kids at soccer practice by 6 and be home by 6:32 to get supper on the table, walk the dog, and finish that presentation by tomorrow morning?!?!

It's a frustration unlike any other. The rest of the day may have gone your way, but all it takes to propel you into apoplexy is sitting through three light changes on Kingston Pike.

"It's amazing how quickly it deteriorates," Stern says as we circle the city in her Cesna Skyhawk. "When it gets heavy and bogged down, it is bogged down everywhere. You can't get anywhere. You're just tearing your hair out."

Welcome to K-town. Natives are stunned to realize that their favorite shortcut has been discovered by 20,000 other drivers and it's not so short anymore. Transplants wonder why 10 miles takes 30 minutes in a metropolitan area with fewer than 350,000 residents. And anyone stuck in the molasses of the I-40/640 interchange praying to get out of second gear by nightfall will swear that Knoxville's traffic woes surpass any other city's in the southeast. But we're not Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, or even Cleveland. Is it just our imagination or do we really have traffic problems?

No Through Traffic

"Yeah, we do," Stern responds with a deep, throaty laugh. "You can't compare us to Los Angeles, you can't compare us to Seattle, but because of the way the roads are laid out here, yes, we do."

Why is Knoxville traffic such a drag? Three reasons, Stern says. One, a lack of sufficient alternate routes; two, Knoxville's astronomical growth westward; and three, a widespread perception that in a town the size of ours, we shouldn't have traffic problems--period.

Lack of alternates, Stern says, is a problem for locals, but even more so for out-of-town travelers. Because of our location--smack dab in the middle of the eastern third of the United States, Knoxville has the dubious honor of being situated at the crossroads of two major interstates--I-40 east and west, I-75 north and south.

"I-75/I-40 is a major thoroughfare for truckers, for travelers," she says. "If there's a problem, I can tell you to take Middlebrook Pike. Some guy from Ontario driving through--he doesn't know what I'm talking about. Most people have no choice but to stay on the interstate."

Even residents familiar with the alternates find them unsuitable and no faster than the interstate.

"In Cleveland or in larger cities, you have a multitude of alternates to take," Stern explains. "In Knoxville, with the majority of the traffic heading west--east in the morning and west in the afternoon--if there's something on the interstate that bogs it down, Sutherland is backed up, Kingston Pike is backed up, Middlebrook is backed up. And there's no other way to go. I've told people at times, 'Why don't you just go down Alcoa Highway to Pellissippi and go back into West Knoxville that way? It's gonna be quicker than sitting on any of these alternates.'"

Lack of east-west alternates, of course, wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that in 1995, nearly 43 percent of Knoxville's population lived in West Knox. Though roadway deficiencies aren't limited to our geographical west--Chapman Highway, Alcoa Highway, and Norris Freeway are daily reminders that traffic problems know no directional boundaries--anyone who dares venture past West Town Mall will agree that west is worst. And the expansion westward over the past decade shows little sign of slowing. Projections for the year 2000 estimate an additional two-and-a-half percent growth westward--about 18,000 more people. Developers continue to build homes faster than the county can build roads. "I talked to a developer in Farragut out near Fox Den, and they're putting up 900 more homes out there," Stern says incredulously. "In the afternoon, the off-ramp to Campbell Station sometimes backs up to Lovell Road. They're going to have to do some revamping with the number of people that are moving out there."

Lest anyone think that our founding fathers planned, at the turn of the century, to confound and frustrate their descendants' daily commute, Bill Kervin, director of Engineering and Public Works for Knox County, says there was no plan--period.

Sitting in his office facing Baxter Street, his walls covered with pictures of his wife and daughter, with thick manuals detailing codes and procedures lining his bookshelves, Kervin kicks back and explains that Tennessee is different from other states.

"The reason the road network developed how it did in East Tennessee is that these were mostly farm roads and they took the path of least resistance," says the mustachioed engineer. "They went around the hills and meandered down the creek beds. As that happened, the center of that road became the property line between two individuals in most cases." Because of our road origins, Kervin acknowledges, "we have a lot of issues to address that a lot of other people don't." Like topsy-turvy design and roads that just aren't equipped to handle the recent explosion of West Knox traffic.

With so much to be done, why does it seem like so little is being done?

Delays Ahead

How we address our road problems is more than just a function of available funding, Kervin says, though money is obviously a major consideration. Complications such as purchasing right-of-way, utility relocation, and satisfying government air-quality standards can transform even the simplest road improvement task into an intricate web of strategic planning.

"It's more involved than people realize," Kervin says.

Take, for example, the widening of Ebenezer Road in the populous West Knox. Stretching from Kingston Pike (near Cedar Bluff) all the way to Northshore, Ebenezer's daily traffic averaged nearly 12,000 cars in 1994--way too many for a road designed to handle about half that. Initially a five-year project from start to finish, with completion scheduled for December 29, 1996, it has created much public frustration because its time-span wasn't made known from the outset. Kervin admits that his office dropped the ball by failing to tell the public that the roadwork would take five years. Worse, the work was delayed an additional five months when contractors began to build the footing for the new railroad bridge.

"We ran into some real mush," Kervin says. "The soil wouldn't stand up to the loads we were going to apply to it because it's in that Ten Mile Creek basin that has all those sinkholes and caverns in it. So we had to go back and redesign it."

With road-building, it appears, the adage should be "expect the unexpected." And many delays in the meantime.

No Turns on Red

So who's responsible for deciding where road improvements are scheduled? The ultimate responsibility falls on the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO is a federally-mandated organization stemming from legislation passed in the early 1970s. The legislation required that all urban areas with a population of 50,000 or more develop a comprehensive and continuing planning process to coordinate all aspects of transportation--from public transit to streets and highways--everything that's moving except airplanes. Also, they have to satisfy Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards.

"We're a necessary evil," says MPO coordinator Jeff Welch.

The MPO starts with census data--things like population, number of dwellings, labor force, employment statistics, and auto ownership--and dumps it into a computer that analyzes the data. Then the MPO brings out its crystal ball and tries to identify what the five and 15-year land use is going to be.

"We're really searching," Welch admits. "We look at the characteristics of the land as it's used now and ask, is that going to change significantly?

It's a massive, complex job. Welch spreads out a highway project timeline on the table and details the steps involved in long-term highway/roadway planning. After data analysis identifies "core deficiencies" in the roadway system, the next step is identifying where the money is going to come from over the next 20 years.

"We've eliminated over a billion dollars worth of projects based on past funding trends," Welch says. "We looked at [the 20-year projections] and we came up with about $2.3 billion worth of transportation projects and realized we only have about $1.3 to $1.5 billion available. Then we cut. Cut, cut, cut."

Beginning with a "needs assessment," similar to the MPO's "core deficiencies," Kervin's office develops a matrix that examines the more than 2,000 miles of Knox County roads. By categorizing roadways according to the seriousness of their deficiencies, the matrix exposes problem areas by assessing average daily traffic, the width of the roadway, and then lumping in accident rates. Based on the results, the roads receive a level-of-service grade--from A to F.

"Just like in school," Kervin laughs. "A is naturally the best, and F is basically a parking lot." Kervin's department begins by examining the D's, E's, and F's. Then he projects, based on past growth and building trends, what it will take to bring an E or F level-of-service up to level C. "That's what you design for," Kervin says. "Level-of-service C."

Why not level-of-service A?

"Economically, it's not feasible," Kervin says. "For example, the interstate costs about $1 million a mile to build. That's for C. If you tried to build it for level A, you'd probably spend between $5 and $10 million a mile." Level C is more realistic and what motorists will accept. "C is pretty good," he insists.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where the bad spots are out west--Lovell Road from Kingston Pike to I-40; Hardin Valley from Campbell Station to Pellissippi; Beaver Creek from I-75 to Dry Gap Pike; and Kingston Pike from Bearden all the way to Campbell Station, to name a few. With average daily traffic projected to double or triple in the next 20 years, these roads don't make the grade.

By grading the roads according to current and future capacity, adding in accident rates and estimating the projected increase of average daily traffic, it's easy to prioritize. This way, Kervin says, "I can stand up in the political arena and defend my recommendations. I'm not picking [a project] because it's in my neighborhood. I'm picking it because the facts say to."

But sometimes priorities are re-prioritized because the money is better spent elsewhere. Though the bottleneck at Kingston Pike and Lyon's View has "been on the state improvement list for several years," Welch says, escalating property values and mounting utility relocation costs have kept the project on the back burner. "It's one of those projects that's moving slow," he says.

Adding up the various phases of roadway design and totaling the time frame, Welch and Kervin say that road improvements average seven years from start to finish.

"Some projects go faster, some take longer," Welch says. "It just takes a tremendous amount of time. We're frustrated, too, on our part, why it takes so long for Middlebrook Pike or Ebenezer Road," he says. "But it's not as simple as 'just do it.'" Lobbying sometimes interferes with the process as well.

"We as a body do not go down to Nashville and lobby for these projects," Welch says, but state legislators with pet projects can occasionally push a project to the top of the list.

Despite the best strategic planning, there's not much fat to be trimmed from the timeline.

"We could plan ourselves to death," Welch says. "Realize that we're projecting out to the year 2020 and 2025 with as good assumptions as we can make and constantly updating."

Signal Ahead--Prepare to Stop

With no way to shorten the timeline, are there short-term solutions to carry us through these congested times? One quick fix is improved traffic-signal technology.

From his office on Baxter Avenue, Ernie "Skipp" Pierce, signal engineer for the city, can change the signal timing of many of the 268 traffic signals at his fingertips. Sitting at his computer, the burly, bespectacled engineer dials up the traffic light at Broadway and Fairfax and up pops a picture of the intersection, complete with flashing cars. A lone green car cruises across the screen, tripping the signal to make the light change.

Pierce explains that the city's new "smart signals" prevent unnecessary light changes--and unnecessary interruptions of traffic flow. When a car drives over the sensor in the road that tells the light to change, the delay device waits a few seconds before changing the light to see if the car is still there. If the car is not there (indicating that it made a right turn on red), the sensor doesn't instruct the light to change. A recent $980,000 grant from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act--known familiarly as the ISTEA--provided enough cash to install the new signal equipment at 131 intersections.

Pierce's department determines--based on a variety of factors, like accident rates, traffic volume, etc.--when and where a light should be installed. But he cautions motorists who insist that an intersection needs a light.

"Most people don't realize that the more signals you have, the worse the traffic is ultimately," he says. "People want a traffic signal because they're having to wait so long, but once there is a traffic signal, they have to wait longer." A better solution, Pierce says, is increasing the efficiency of existing signals with coordinated timing patterns.

Even with new technology, there are some intersections that nothing short of dynamite can fix. Where UT traffic empties onto Cumberland from Volunteer Boulevard, the road length between signals isn't sufficient to allow for good traffic flow. "Sometimes even the best solution isn't a good solution," Pierce says, "it's just the best solution."

And his traffic signals don't always deserve the blame for slowdowns at intersections, Pierce says--the human factor is often the culprit. As part of his graduate study work at UT, Pierce observed drivers at various intersections at different times of day to find out when, where, and what kinds of drivers were responsible for those annoying extra seconds of lag time at a light. To his chagrin, he found he'd been blaming the wrong sex for slow start-ups. "Men on cellular phones," he says, shaking his head. "Not women putting on their makeup." And sleepyheads of both sexes contribute to slow moving morning traffic.

An imperfect non-solution but one many commuters could use to decrease their travel time is staggered departure. By delaying their departure from home or work by 10 or 15 minutes, lots of folks can avoid the gridlock all together.

"Our peak traffic time is not an hour," Welch says, "it's 30 minutes at the outside. If you can avoid that time frame, you're in pretty good shape."

Dr. Michael Zemel, head of the nutrition department at UT, says if he leaves his house at 7:10, he can drop his daughter at school and be at work by 7:30. "But if I leave at 7:20, my 15- to 20-minute drive becomes a 35-minute drive."

Caution--Speed Bumps

One final factor pertaining to Knoxville traffic is less a reality, perhaps, than a perception--a widespread feeling that in a city of fewer than 400,000 people, there shouldn't be any traffic.

"In big cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, people expect to have traffic delays," Sterns says, "and they plan for them. But you come to a city like this and nobody wants to stop. Nobody thinks they should have to be held up in any kind of traffic."

Still, there are refugees from the aforementioned cities who consider our traffic jams to be quaint. Attorney Arnold Cohen, for instance, has a hard time fathoming how anyone can complain about Knoxville traffic.

"What I hear is people out west commenting about how difficult it is to come downtown, and that's baloney," Cohen says. "Downtown is really an easy place to be. I've lived in Philadelphia and Washington, and Knoxville is a bargain. Compared to other cities, Knoxville is a sweetheart traffic situation."

New York native Geoff Proud, who commutes daily from his Old City office to his subdivision off Ebenezer Road, concurs: "I think Knoxville traffic is adorable."

But there is another wild card factor that's hard to ignore, even in our adorable traffic jams: those idiosyncratic driving styles that seem to have been born in East Tennessee.

There's that scruffy redneck in the rust-on-white Chevy pick-up ahead of you who's been signalling left for more than two miles--and who suddenly veers into your lane to make an unannounced right-hand turn. He doesn't even glance in your direction to indicate his true intentions before he's in your lane, giving you two nanoseconds to slam on your brakes to avoid certain death. Your heart leaps into your mouth and your knees turn to Jell-o as your legs spaz like a bulldog's when you scratch his secret spot.

Then it hits you like a tidal wave: THAT SORRY MOTHER COULD HAVE KILLED ME! He didn't signal (at least not in the right direction), he didn't stop, HELL, HE DIDN'T EVEN SEE ME! Inarticulate rage takes over and you start to make noises that sound less like words than primal screams.

On this point, even our Knoxville-traffic-loving skeptics agree. Proud says when his in-laws moved here four years ago, "I told them the first thing you have to do after you get here is go the department of motor vehicles and have your turn signal disconnected." As it is, the self-employed TV producer doesn't have much faith even when somebody does signal. "If I see one, I don't trust it. It's obvious they just bumped into it trying to get to a cigarette."

Michigan transplant Zemel puts it as mildly as he can: "At the risk of being branded a damn Yankee, let me just say the pattern of driving styles around here are different."

Still, Zemel laughs at himself even as he complains about traffic. "When we moved here from Michigan six years ago, what were branded as traffic slowdowns--we were amused by them. Either it's gotten worse, or my tolerance has gone down."

So the next time you're mired in the mush of rush-hour, poking along at 25 m.p.h. as you the hit I-40/640 exchange, grumbling and cursing and pulling your hair out, take heart--you could do a lot worse than 30 minutes on I-40 westbound. And maybe by 2004, it'll be a whole lot better.