Sullivan County Commission asks TDOT to reverse course on road project

J. H. Osborne • Mar 20, 2007 at 1:39 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - The Sullivan County Commission is asking the Tennessee Department of Transportation to put "Airport Parkway South" on the front burner.

TDOT announced last week it would "not move forward" with the planned extension of State Route 357 from Tri-Cities Regional Airport to Highway 11-E at or near the latter road's intersection with Highway 19-E.

That long-talked-about nine-mile extension of State Route 357 has been more commonly called "Airport Parkway South."

Elected officials across the region have voiced support for construction of the road time and time again.

The Sullivan County Commission went on record in favor of the project several years ago. And a resolution reaffirming that position was already before commissioners before TDOT's announcement last week that it was shelving the project.

On Monday, County Mayor Steve Godsey told commissioners he was surprised by the TDOT announcement - and about TDOT's statement there is no "urgent" feeling from the community that the road is needed.

Godsey said he and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey had met with TDOT officials just a few weeks ago - and at no time got any indication the project was going to be de-prioritized.

Allan Pope, Sullivan County's commissioner of highways, said he favors construction of Airport Parkway South. Pope said property values would increase along the proposed road's route once construction was completed.

"I've never seen a highway built that didn't increase property values," Pope said.

Pope said some opponents of the road have said potential construction of a bridge over Boone Lake - depending on which of several proposed routes for the road is chosen - could stir up pollution that once plagued the lake.

Pope discounted those concerns.

"Most of us in here remember, years ago, Boone Lake was polluted - to the point that you couldn't even eat fish out of it," Pope said. "Well, over the years, that pollution has settled to the bottom of the lake and has been encapsulated by the silt."

Lake area residents are concerned work to drive pilings for the piers for the bridge would stir that pollution up, Pope said.

"Technology is available now to keep that to a minimum," Pope said. "TDOT is going to probably spend $200 million on a highway somewhere in Tennessee. And with all due respect to people that live out there, and what studies have been as far as the Boone Lake Association is concerned, when it comes time to do this, they're going to do it somewhere. If not here, somewhere else.

"True, I've read articles where they said the highway is not needed. It may not be needed this year. It may not be needed next year. But you can bet, I can guarantee you in the next three to five years it will be. And the very people who are right now ... opposed to it, I guarantee they will use it. The bottom line is TDOT is going to spend $200 million-plus somewhere. And I can't think of better place than good ol' Sullivan County."

He said the project would bring jobs to local companies.

The State Route 357 Extension project's history includes:

•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.

Supporters of the road's construction say it is needed to spur economic development, growth of Northeast State Technical Community College, and increased traffic at TCRA.

The Sullivan County Commission voted Monday to send a message to TDOT to proceed with planning and construction of Airport Parkway South.

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