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  Road Rage

Are the I-40 construction projects truly endless, or do they just seem that way? And are they making anything better?

by Matthew T. Everett

Breaking down on the side of the interstate is bad. Breaking down on Interstate 40, in the middle of the convoluted-beyond-belief construction zone around the Alcoa Highway interchange, during rush hour, is immeasurably worse.

It happened to me last week, just after 6 p.m. My 1992 Nissan Sentra sputtered and died just as I came around the curve before the 17th Street exit ramp on the eastbound side. The alternator, I later found out, had died and taken the car battery—only a year old—with it. I coasted around the curve, then through a slalom of orange-and-white barrels, onto the narrow construction-zone shoulder, as agitated motorists slammed on their brakes just behind me or swerved over into the left lane.

The sun was dropping, night was beginning to fall, and I was stranded on a cold, lonely, isolated triangle of asphalt bordered by the freeway, the exit ramp, and a precipitous 20-foot drop down toward University Avenue on the opposite side of a three-foot-high concrete retaining wall. To my left, only a dozen feet away, cars and trucks zoomed past, probably more than a hundred of them in a minute, universally ignoring not only the posted construction-zone speed limit of 45 miles an hour but the standard inside-the-city maximum of 55 mph. In contrast, the westbound side of I-40—separated from the eastbound lanes by just a few feet and a temporary divider—looked more like a parking lot than a road, with commuter and truck traffic lurching forward, braking, lurching, braking, choking the air with exhaust fumes and the ghastly unnatural heat of idling combustion engines. An altogether ugly—and dangerous—place to be. But, from a journalistic vantage, a perfect spot to consider the present and future state of I-40.

Unfortunately, scenes like this (preferably without me standing on the side of the road) are fairly typical in Knoxville. There seem to be two extremes of driving on the interstate here—fast and stop—and not much in between. Over the last few years, the "stop" part has become all too common, and, with the state's transportation agency planning even more construction, it looks like it's going to remain a central piece of local interstate driving for years to come.

How did it get this way, and what's it going to be like when—and if—all the road work finally stops?

Almost since its completion in the early 1970s, the 33-mile stretch of Interstate 40 through Knox County has been dotted with construction zones, from routine maintenance to major improvements. In the early '80s, the Tennessee Department of Transportation began work that would take years and millions of dollars to expand I-40 from four to six lanes (though the short stretch through downtown—a perpetual sticking point for motorists, transportation planners and residents of nearby neighborhoods—was left at four lanes), and to build bypass routes like the James White Parkway.

But traffic quickly caught up to those improvements, effectively making them obsolete by the time they were finished. Transportation officials blamed the renewed congestion largely on an exponential increase in the number of drivers on the roads and the number of miles driven; Bill Moore, TDOT's chief engineer, says traffic in Tennessee has increased by 50 percent in the last 10 years alone.

But some critics of state transportation policy say the constant road work itself is to blame, at least in part, for the growing congestion. The seemingly endless cycle of road-building and widening encourages more traffic—make the road wider, and more people will use it, they say—and prompts sprawl development, which in turn spurs even more driving.

"In Tennessee, [as] in a number of other states, the transportation system at the state level is almost exclusively road-centered," says Trip Pollard, leader of the land and community project of the Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. "Once, it made sense, when we were paving dirt roads and then giving people access to the interstate. But what we need now is a more balanced approach. We can't pave our way out of congestion. Building more roads encourages people to move out and drive further, and it discourages people from using transportation alternatives. It sucks up all the money."

The extensive road work on I-40 during the 1980s certainly wasn't a long-term solution. New drivers, more households with multiple cars, longer commutes as more and more people moved to the suburbs, the growing number of teenage drivers, and more thru-traffic all contributed to even more congestion after the initial wave of road-widening projects was finished. At the conjunction of I-40 and the I-640 bypass—the busiest stretch of interstate in Tennessee, according to TDOT—the number of daily trips grew from 109,000 to 163,000 between 1991 and 1999. On the section between Broadway and I-275, 83,000 cars and trucks a day passed in 1991. In 1999, the latest year that TDOT officials have records from, there were 98,000 daily trips on the same narrow, clogged section.

To make room for the increasing number of cars on the roads, TDOT planned in the late '80s to do exactly what they've always done when faced with congestion: build more lanes and make interchanges more efficient so it's easier to get to all the business and residential development that follows interstates.

The first step in this second round of improvements to I-40 was construction around the Cedar Bluff interchange in West Knoxville. Started in late 1991, the project widened the three-mile section of I-40 between Walker Springs Road and the Cedar Bluff interchange to eight lanes and streamlined the entrance and exit ramps that had become clogged by increased traffic from commercial development on Cedar Bluff Road. The project caused nearly interminable delays before it was completed in late 1994, at a cost of $14.5 million. Construction of the $24 million downtown connector to I-40 and I-275—the two downtown tunnels—overlapped with the Cedar Bluff project, beginning in mid-1992 and lasting until 1994. In late 1993, TDOT began work on the I-40 exchange with the new Pellissippi Parkway (a $16 million project) that connects Oak Ridge through West Knoxville to Maryville. That work was completed in 1999.

While all of that was going on, TDOT began construction of the new Gallaher View Road interchange between the West Hills and Walker Springs Boulevard exits, a $6 million job that was necessary before reconstruction of the Walker Springs interchange could begin. The Gallaher View work was completed in 1993, and construction at Walker Springs—including two new frontage roads running parallel to the interstate—began immediately, lasting until 1997.

All of these construction and redesign projects were accompanied by massive delays and rerouting headaches for drivers. The same is true for the three major projects under way on I-40 right now: rebuilding the exchange between Alcoa Highway and I-40, a $27 million project; widening I-40 to eight lanes from the Papermill Road interchange east to the junction with I-640, at a cost of $10 million; and another $10 million effort to rebuild the interchange at Lovell Road to accommodate heavy truck traffic and commercial development.

The Alcoa Highway interchange is only part of a larger effort to widen the section of Alcoa Highway between I-40 and the Buck Karnes Bridge across the Tennessee River. According to the Knox Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Commission, both the interchange, under construction now, and the section of the highway between the bridge and I-40 are to be widened to six lanes—three in each direction—by the end of 2003. The interchanges at I-40, Cumberland Avenue, and Neyland Drive are also scheduled to be rebuilt and widened as part of the project.

The new interchange at I-40 is supposed to correct the narrow, steep on- and off-ramps between the interstate and Alcoa Highway, and to widen access from I-40 onto the highway. TDOT officials have said the project will relieve congestion on the highway and make it safer.

But the combination of the Alcoa Highway and Papermill Road construction projects—effectively one long construction zone, reaching from I-275 to Papermill—has been a double-whammy for motorists: the narrow, clogged section of I-40 between Broadway and I-275 routinely causes back-ups, even before the construction zones. Then, as cars and trucks from I-275 flow westbound onto I-40, traffic is squeezed into two narrow temporary lanes with abrupt shifts, no shoulder, and sudden encounters with merging traffic from downtown and Western Avenue. The traffic back-ups and long lines—as well as the narrow lanes, absence of a shoulder, and a series of lane shifts—continue for several miles, until the junction with I-640, where merging traffic finally creates a third lane through the Papermill Road construction zone. Without any extraordinary circumstances—an accident, stalled car, or exceptionally heavy traffic during the afternoon rush hour—traffic flows smoothly from there, all the way to the western end of the county and the eventual split of I-40 and I-75. (The Lovell Road improvement—widening to four lanes each way and extending the exit ramps—causes slight delays during peak hours, especially on the exit ramps, but it hasn't had the same impact as the earlier interchange redesigns at Cedar Bluff and Walker Springs.)

Both the Papermill and Lovell Road improvements are scheduled to be done in 2002, and the Alcoa Highway interchange improvements should be done by the end of this year, though TDOT is notorious for extending work past the date originally set for completion. Before they're finished, though, it's very likely that one or more of the remaining I-40-related projects on TDOT's immediate schedule will be under way.

The most likely to start soon is widening of the three-mile stretch between Papermill Road and the West Hills exit. "When that's done, the whole corridor between I-275 through Lovell Road will be done," says Fred Corum, director of TDOT's regional office in Knoxville. It's a pretty straightforward project—expand the current six lanes to eight. But delays are almost certain, especially considering that West Hills, with access to West Town Mall, is among the most heavily-used interchanges on I-40 in West Knoxville.

Corum says the long-awaited and much-delayed widening of the interstate to six lanes between I-275 and the Broadway exit, with redesign of the James White Parkway on- and off-ramps—at an estimated cost of $131 million—is still in the planning stages but probably won't start any time soon. Even though emergency bridge repair was needed there last summer, the earliest possible date for starting is late 2002. "It's still being worked on, but it's not in the real near future for contract-letting," Corum says.

And once work does start, it will take several years to complete, initiating yet another labyrinth of construction-related delays. The Fifth Avenue connector between Fifth Avenue and Summit Hill Drive will be the first step. "Traffic that's bound for Broadway or North Knoxville, or vice versa, has to take the interstate to get to the James White Parkway. The connector should alleviate that," says Jeff Welch, director of the Knox Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. "It'll get local traffic off of the interstate for that half-mile section and give greater flexibility during the construction phase."

Welch says the reconstruction of I-40 between I-275 and Broadway will be the most difficult section of the interstate to widen. "It'll be complex, the construction and the traffic control," he says.

"It'll definitely be an improvement to traffic flow once it's all completed," Corum says. "Trying to run 160,000 vehicles through there, in that short area there, we'll have to kind of stuff it all in. But it'll work a lot better when the interchanges all function."

It might work better for motorists, but residents of nearby neighborhoods like Fourth and Gill and Parkridge aren't sure it will work well for them.

Fourth and Gill residents have complained that the construction will bring more noise and unsightly concrete into their neighborhood. The Fourth and Gill Freeway Committee even offered a slightly more expensive alternate plan to TDOT, but the agency rejected it after brief consideration.

The committee's plan would have lowered the interstate to below ground level to reduce noise and visibility, and also to reconnect the two sides of the neighborhood that are now bisected by I-40. (Currently, and in TDOT's plan, I-40 is elevated 30 feet above the neighborhood.) But Larry Fitzpatrick, a Fourth and Gill resident and member of the freeway committee, says the neighborhood plan wouldn't affect the amount of traffic disruption caused by construction. "For that, it's no better than the elevated plan," he says. "Anything they do will disrupt traffic here."

But the biggest of all coming construction projects is the proposed I-475 bypass route to connect I-75, north of Knoxville, with I-40 west of town.

The bypass, intended to relieve West Knoxville's interstate congestion, just as I-640 was expected to do nearly 20 years ago, has been in the planning stages for several years, but TDOT officials have yet to choose a route. They have three proposals: The Blue Route, a 35-mile link between I-75 at Lenoir City, west of the split with I-40, and I-75 north of Knoxville near the Clinch River in Anderson County, at an estimated cost of $300 million; the shorter Orange Route, a 23-mile path from the I-40/I-75 split through Hardin Valley to I-75 at Raccoon Valley Road, again in Anderson County, at a cost of $226 million; and a modified version of the Orange Route that would only extend from Raccoon Valley Road to the Pellissippi Parkway, sparing Hardin Valley, at about $150 million.

A public hearing is planned in February or March (a date hasn't been set yet) on the three proposed routes, with final selection expected by summer, Welch says.

Even then, Welch adds, it may be years before construction actually begins. "It's a matter of finding the money to do it," he says. "It depends on how they break the sections down, but with the design and acquisition of the right-of-way, the earliest start may be three or four years. That's before you see dirt moving. And it'll be several more years before it's done."

But just how necessary is the bypass? Welch says that TDOT's predictions for the bypass (and the even more long-term plan to make I-475 a beltway, spanning from I-40 in the far western end of the county to the far eastern end, across I-75) depend primarily on the current traffic counts on I-40 and I-75. "Traffic has increased significantly, and so has the percentage of trucks," he says. "The idea is to divert some of that traffic westbound out of the heart of Knoxville."

But TDOT officials are already predicting its effects, even before seeing the results of all the construction going on now. The beltway may, in fact, only add to the problem. I-285, the perimeter bypass that circles downtown Atlanta, has contributed to the mushrooming suburban sprawl—and monstrous snarls of traffic—north of that city, and Nashville's beltway has had similar effects.

"That's always a problem," Welch says. "We're having to look at future projections now...There are all kinds of questions that need to be addressed. If we build here, how much traffic will it support, and what will the impact be on the environment, and a lot of other questions...And there's not going to be a right answer; there'll be a subjective answer."

So what happens when all of this is done? Will all these improvements—which may not be complete for another 10 years, and will end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars—be adequate? Or will we see, once again, after they're done, that the roads still need to be bigger, faster, and wider?

"There's not enough right-of-way or capacity on I-40 or I-75 to respond adequately to the traffic growth that's projected over the next 25 years," Welch says. "What we're doing now, primarily, is not a 30-year fix without other transportation improvements. That's why the beltway is still part of the potential solution. With all the business along Kingston Pike and the interstate, and all the homes on the north side, there's no way we could widen it to five or six lanes in each direction, which we would probably need for a 30-year solution."

Even beyond the specific projects planned by TDOT, the Metropolitan Planning Organization's 25-year transportation plan, approved in 1999, indicates that most of I-40, particularly in West Knoxville, will need even further major improvement work in the next two decades, if traffic growth continues at the same pace.

Part of the problem, say both Welch and TDOT's Moore, is that there just isn't enough money in TDOT's budget, even at $1.4 billion, to solve all of the state's interstate problems. But Pollard contends that too much of that money is being spent on road-building and widening, money that could be used to explore alternatives.

"Tennessee's spending a lot of federal money that could be used for other transportation systems," he says. "It's very road-centered. Tennessee gets low marks for failing to use the increase in the federal gas tax [budgeted for state transportation agencies] effectively."

Moore concedes that building won't be the ultimate solution. "We can't build ourselves out of our congestion problem. There's not enough money," he says.

But the alternatives he suggests are limited, and reflect the narrow road- and automobile-centered philosophy of TDOT. "We're trying to concentrate on new options, like an intelligent transportation system and the bypass," he says. An intelligent transportation system, or ITS, is a network of electronic signs to alert motorists of delays and alternate routes; Moore says ITS can increase the capacity of an interstate by 10 to 15 percent.

Adding to the burden of interstate improvements—for TDOT and for motorists—are the unavoidable delays caused by construction itself and the difficulty of getting projects done on time. "We could do things a lot quicker," Moore acknowledges. "And maintenance is getting bigger and bigger all the time. We've added incentives so that contractors will work at night or work on weekends, but that costs more."

Road-building and expansion are necessary functions of state transportation agencies, Pollard says. But the only viable solutions to congestion, he adds, will involve long-range planning that includes more intelligent land-use policy and alternatives to more and bigger roads, like mass transit and pedestrian options.

"You're really seeing throughout the country that people realize we can't keep going on the path we're going on," Pollard explains. "The number of miles we drive is going up, and congestion is worse. The public is ahead of the policy makers, and they're starting to see the link between transportation and land use."

One familiar argument that developers use to defend the suburban strip development that comes with interstate construction is that they're just following the marketplace, that they're building subdivisions and convenience stores and strip malls because that's what people want. But Pollard says people want that because it's readily available, and that revamped local land-use policies could make high-density, mixed-use development and central city redevelopment more attractive to developers and buyers.

"The more you dig into it, the more you find how much policy shapes choices and determines the market," he says. "Developers tend to build where it's cheapest and easiest, and when our transportation policy is putting billions of dollars into roads, it's cheaper and easier to build along them. If we didn't have all of these roads, a lot of areas where new development happens would be unfeasible, economically, to develop."

Welch agrees that land-use and transportation policies are linked. "It's better to put policies in place soon to prepare for [transportation alternatives], rather than after," he says. "We need mass transit, and we need density in residential areas. Low-density residential sprawl isn't supportive of mass transit, but that's what, for the last 30 years, this area has embraced."

As I stood on the shoulder of I-40 last week, it looked like that's what Knoxville will continue to embrace. The next decade of state transportation planning here seems focused on building roads and making them as big and fast as possible, with little emphasis on mass transit options or on making roads safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

That's likely to last for the foreseeable future. Says Welch: "For the next 25 years, the interstate and parallel corridors are going to be under construction, unless there's a change to limit the number of car trips or a different way of thinking and approaching transportation policy."

January 18, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 3
© 2001 Metro Pulse