State Rep. Nathan Vaughn, D-Kingsport, asked more than 50 concerned citizens at Indian Springs Baptist Church if there was anyone against the highway improvement project that has turned political and taken center stage in Vaughn’s re-election campaign.
No one raised a hand in opposition to Memorial Boulevard being rebuilt, and a number of citizens spoke emotionally about wanting the road to be fixed quicker.
“This project is not about me. ... This is about you,” Vaughn, the meeting’s host, said of the job. “What I implore you to do is just be positive.”
But Ed Cole, TDOT’s chief of environment and planning, acknowledged that it will be at least five years before construction can begin on the 8.8-mile stretch of road linking Kingsport with a section of Interstate 81.
Advocates for fixing the highway note that 15 fatalities have happened on the curvy two-lane road since 1999 either in vehicle collisions, loss of control or off-road incidents.
Cole announced that early this summer TDOT will improve safety at the Memorial Boulevard intersection with Carolina Pottery Drive.
The improvements will include new left-turn lanes, new road striping, new signage, and trimming vegetation in the area to improve sight distance. The speed limit in the area will also be lowered from 50 mph to 45 mph, according to TDOT.
Meanwhile, Cole noted the overall road upgrading project remains in the environmental assessment phase. The next steps involve project engineering and design, right-of-way acquisition and then construction. Last year, TDOT ballparked the project as costing upwards of $90 million.
Each new phase, Cole pointed out, will depend on funding.
“The environmental study process takes time,” Cole told residents. “It deals with air quality. It deals with land. It deals with places like Yancey’s Tavern (a historic site next to Memorial Boulevard). It deals with cultural resources. It deals with water quality.”
Cole also said there is a “serious crisis” in road funding and stressed that more than $200 million in highway funds have been rescinded by the federal government.
Ultimately, Cole said future Memorial Boulevard funding decisions will rest with TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely in making recommendations to state lawmakers.
Vaughn’s GOP challenger, Tony Shipley of Colonial Heights, has accused him of being “asleep at the switch” in advocating Memorial Boulevard improvements.
Shipley, who was not at last night’s meeting, also has insisted Cole said “we didn’t think you wanted that road fixed” while referring to the Memorial Boulevard project.
Cole said he didn’t make the statement, but Shipley said it happened during a meeting held in Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s office.
Vaughn backed Cole’s version of what happened.
“There was never a time when anyone said ‘We don’t want anything done,’” Vaughn told residents.
Shipley didn’t back down from what he heard Cole say in the meeting.
“I am clear in my mind about this,” Shipley said. “I recognize TDOT has done the best they could do, but (Cole) was clearly astonished that somebody from this community was down there asking questions. His comment clearly indicated he was surprised. ... Obviously there was a lack of legislative attention (from Vaughn).”
Vaughn reminded residents that other state lawmakers from Sullivan County represent them in Nashville.
“Some of my colleagues have been in Nashville a lot longer than I have ... (and) I invited them to come to this meeting,” Vaughn said.