BLOUNTVILLE - If ever it's built, maybe "Mark Twain Highway" would be a more apt name. Local officials hope the proposed road's death has been greatly exaggerated.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation issued a statement Tuesday to say the long-talked-about State Route 357 extension project "will not move forward at this time."
Often referred to as "Airport Parkway South," the proposed 9-mile, limited-access highway would link existing State Route 357 near Tri-Cities Regional Airport to Highway 11-E at or near the latter road's intersection with Highway 19-E.
TDOT's announcement concluded with a promise the agency will begin working on possible solutions for improving conditions at the intersection of U.S. 11-E and U.S. 19-E - and work to identify any additional locations on the existing roadway where improvements would provide safer and more effective facilities.
Elected officials across the region have voiced support for construction of "Airport Parkway South" time and time again.
The Sullivan County Commission went on record in favor of the project several years ago. Just last week, most commissioners voted to ask TDOT to move forward with the road's construction.
And local government officials, in putting together this year's Tri-Cities Joint Legislative Policy submitted to area state lawmakers, supported the completion of Airport Parkway South.
NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership, the joint economic development effort of Sullivan County and its cities, also endorsed construction of the road.
In Tuesday's announcement, TDOT officials cited a lack of urgency from the community and an absence of the project from local transportation planning priority lists as reasons for shelving the project.
Both points were rebuffed by local leaders.
"After months of meetings, it seems clear that the community feels there is no urgent need for an extension of State Route 357," said Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Gerald Nicely, in the written statement from TDOT.
NETWORKS Chief Executive Officer Richard Venable, however, said the road is in fact an economic development priority, and that urgency has been conveyed to TDOT numerous times.
"If you're not going to listen to the elected representatives of the people, who are you going to listen to?" Venable said. "You can't listen to all the people, because all the people don't talk. Some people talk louder than others - and they're the ones who get heard."
Venable said the "citizen resource team" approach TDOT used to gain public input on the project was "flawed from the get-go. From the selection of the members to the failure to replace members who dropped out of the process, I was disappointed in it."
Some members, he said, were entrenched in their opinions and closed to further discussion of the project.
When the original consultant was replaced about midway through the process, the process should have been scrapped and restarted, Venable said.
TDOT's shelving of the project is bad news for the airport, Northeast State Technical Community College, a NETWORKS-owned industrial park near TCRA, and others, Venable said.
"The elected leaders in Sullivan, Johnson and Carter counties will feel like it's a setback," Venable said. "It's a setback for TCRA. It's a setback for Northeast State. It's a setback for the Partnership Park One development. It's a setback for Tri-County Industrial Park in Piney Flats.
"I think ultimately - that road is so sorely needed in Sullivan County - we'll get a leader, and some of our leaders will exert the leadership necessary to do the right thing. Our elected officials have said it's the right thing to do for the region. But we haven't gotten that same resolve from Nashville."
Venable said it was "very heartening" that the necessity for the road was one of the first things talked about by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey upon his election to that office.
"I have great hope that our TDOT officials and our elected government officials will come together and make a decision that's best for the majority," Venable said. "It will be resurrected. And I believe it will be resurrected very quickly because it is a priority."
But in TDOT's written statement, the state agency's chief of environment said the project is not currently included as a priority project by either the Kingsport Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) or in the First Tennessee Regional Transportation Planning Organization (RTPO).
"These two planning organizations communicate to TDOT the need for certain projects in the Kingsport and Northeast Tennessee areas," said Ed Cole. "The absence of the SR357 Extension Project from their list of priority projects certainly was a factor in the decision to move forward with only intersection improvements at this time."
Kingsport's transportation planning manager said TDOT's statement was unfair.
"It is on our list of projects," said Bill Albright. "We've always supported the project. It's always been on our list. But it's not been one of our top projects. It's not front and center for us - we have other projects we're working on in the area that take precedence. Some are major projects and some are minor. But they're in our jurisdiction. Ninety percent of this road (proposed Airport Parkway South), geographically, is not in our jurisdiction. Only that little section that ties in with existing 357 at the airport is in our area. The rest of it is not in our MPO. So we can say we support it, but we can't really make it a priority."
In a prepared statement about TDOT's decision, Ramsey said: "Obviously we are disappointed, but this does not mean the project is dead though it is no longer considered a high-priority project. The good news is I have received a commitment from TDOT to expedite the design and build of the 19-E and 11-E intersection."
From state Rep. Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol: "I am certainly disappointed. I have been a supporter of the project since its inception. I hope that we have a day in the not-too-distant future that we are able to revisit that project. We are going to touch base with the local government, the county commission in particular, and work to reinvigorate the proposal. I would like to see a more aggressive Department of Transportation in a lot of respects in pursuing future projects like this."
•The design process of preparing preliminary plans was under way in 1999.
•According to TDOT's Web site, the preferred alternate selected by TDOT began at State Route 357 west of TCRA and extended in a southeasterly direction north of the airport and Boone Lake to the U.S. 11-E/19-W and U.S. 19-E intersection near Bluff City.
•Six years ago, however, TDOT conducted a public hearing for review and comment on the proposed road and received largely negative feedback.
•Major points of opposition have been bridging Boone Lake; the taking of homes; and putting a highway through what is largely considered a rural setting.
•The State Route 357 Extension was put on hold then revived after being reviewed in 2003 along with other controversial projects.
•In early 2004, TDOT committed to move forward with the project by following a process called Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS).
•As a part of the CSS process, the Citizens Resource Team was formed.
Sullivan County Commissioner Sam Jones was a member of that team.
"That pretty much kills any development in the center of the county," Jones said of TDOT's decision to shelve the project. "For 35 to 40 years, that project has been talked about in that community. People who lived out there, including myself, had always looked forward to that being developed. It's people who've moved in here since that time who've opposed it. A lot of us, who are natives of that area, had really looked forward to being able to see development take place through our part of Sullivan County."
Jones said the team was within one vote of a majority in favor of a route for the road, but a team member who supported the project died and was not replaced.
The purpose and need of the project will continue to be evaluated during planning sessions with the local MPOs and RPOs to determine when this project should be prioritized and considered for funding.