TDOT stands pat on Airport Parkway South

J. H. Osborne • Mar 24, 2007 at 1:06 AM

On Thursday, Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey said the Tennessee Department of Transportation would "rectify" a week-old statement on the proposed State Route 357 extension, commonly called "Airport Parkway South."

Godsey said the project "is not dead."

TDOT officials on Friday agreed with the "not dead" portion of Godsey's comments.

But, they said, TDOT never said it was dead. TDOT did say, however, that it won't move forward at this time.

And they're sticking by that statement - no corrections, clarifications or rectification will be coming. At least no time soon.

"The answer to changing the position is ‘no,'" said Ed Cole, TDOT's chief of environment and planning.

Cole said Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely's decision not to proceed with the project was based mainly on the lack of a consensus from a Citizens Resource Team (CRT) that studied several proposed routes for the proposed road.

A secondary factor in Nicely's decision was an absence of the project on priority lists from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and a regional planning organization (RPO) that serve the region, Cole said.

"At this point in time, based on the recommendation from the Citizens Resource Team - and in absence of high-priority recommendations from the MPOs and the RPO - he was deciding to not proceed with the project with the exception of the interchange improvements at Highways 19-E and 11-E. That in no way canceled the project, in terms of saying it's no longer ever going to happen. That was our position ... and that's our position today. We are not going to pursue the project until we receive - through the channels that we normally get priorities set, the MPOs and the RPO - that this is a high priority."

But even that wouldn't guarantee "Airport Parkway South" a front-burner spot anytime soon.

"All that is said in the context of our funding situation," Cole said. "Which means if all that happens, there is still the competition for dollars that has to occur."

With federal funds dropping in the coming year, TDOT is watching how it spends every dollar, TDOT Public Information Officer Julie Oaks said.

"Tennessee, we've learned this week,... is going to have $73.4 million in federal funds rescinded," Oaks said. "What that means is we're looking very closely at the projects in the pipeline and at the projects that are going to be moving forward this year. We're facing extremely tight federal funds - and federal funds make up 52 percent of our budget. That really has an impact on us."

TDOT put about $750 million worth of projects out to bid last year, Oaks said. That's not likely to happen again in the year ahead.

"We're not going be adding any new projects to our pipeline," Oaks said. "Right now we have about $4.5 billion to $5 billion worth of projects that are currently in some sort of development. (Nicely) feels it would be really irresponsible for us to take on any more projects at this point until we have a much clearer picture of what our federal funding situation is going to be. We're trying to be very cautious and let the public know that they may not want to expect another record year of lettings. We're looking at everything very, very closely."

"There is nothing we have received from the RPO or the MPOs that said anything about a high priority here," Cole said. "In no way does that prohibit that from happening in the future. The project is included in the long-range plan of each of the planning organizations. In no way are we saying that nobody is thinking about it or hasn't identified that at some point in the future there ought to be a road here."

Cole and Oaks were surprised to hear Sullivan County officials have been describing "Airport Parkway South" as a $200 million project.

"That would be a huge project," Oaks said. "To put that into context, the largest project in the state ever to be let was our Smart Fix project in Knoxville, and that was $100 million."

Cole said the proposed State Route 357 extension is a "huge" project, however - and that's all the more reason TDOT wants to know the road is absolutely supported by the community.

"The one thing everyone did agree on is that Highway 19-E and Highway 11-E come together at a very dangerous place, and we need to go about fixing that," Cole said.

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