TDOT officials: I-26 center should open next summer

Hank Hayes • Oct 18, 2012 at 9:39 AM

KINGSPORT — Tennessee’s newest interstate welcome center should be open next summer and showcase local tourism initiatives, Tennessee Department of Transportation officials said Thursday.

A busload of state and regional officials capped off TDOT’s East Tennessee “Projects Tour” by viewing progress made on Kingsport’s Interstate 26 welcome center — a location now framed by scenic fall color and within sight of Bays Mountain.

Much of the $9.5 million roadwork is in place, while a $2 million contract for the center’s log-style main building is scheduled to be awarded next month.

TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges pointed out the standardized building design partners with tourism and also includes an office for state troopers.

“Our welcome centers see about a million people a year,” Degges told a group standing on a ramp opposite the center site. “We’ve had really, really good luck with this design. We’ve got it probably in eight or 10 places across the state. ... We’ve done this with a tremendous amount of consultation with local government.”

Kingsport City Manager John Campbell appeared pleased with the center’s progress to date.

“I think this welcome center is well-placed and well-positioned in terms of what is on display and can be very valuable to the region as well as the state,” Campbell said. “This particular one, where you have access in both directions and the potential to have people see what’s available in the region if they are coming from the north. ... They can see the material about Bays Mountain Park, one of the top 16 parks in the country for a city park, and they can easily turn around and go back. ... There’s a lot of potential for local visitation. ... It’s more scenic and more relaxed. It’s a great opportunity for a lot of people from the Midwest who haven’t seen this area before.”

The center’s diamond-shaped interchange includes an overhead bridge featuring state logos. The center will include sidewalks, an on-site picnic area, vending machines, separate car and truck parking, and a dog walk. Wireless Internet, plus a computerized kiosk, is expected to be available inside the main building, as well as a state tourism official to field questions during business hours.

An average of 3,600 vehicles visit a Tennessee Welcome Center daily, said TDOT Project Manager John Barrett.

“It has been a long time since the concept of a welcome center was first established being placed on I-26/Kingsport,” said Jud Teague, executive director of the Kingsport Convention and Visitors Bureau. “(The welcome center) will give many an opportunity to stop and get a glimpse of our area that may have not otherwise had that opportunity. We have some of the most visited welcome centers in the state right here in Northeast Tennessee and look forward to the opening of I-26/Kingsport.”

The I-26 welcome center is being funded by Appalachian Regional Commission dollars.

Tennessee’s transportation program is funded by state highway user taxes and fees and federal funding. Those taxes and fees come from vehicle registrations and fuel. No money comes from the state’s general fund, which relies on the sales tax.

Still, the funding situation for Tennessee’s pay-as-you-go highway program isn’t getting better, said TDOT Commissioner John Schroer.

“Our funding is based upon how many gallons of gas people are buying, and that is a declining resource for us,” Schroer said. “Money is tough and will continue to be tough. My budget is $100 million less than it was last year. ... We will take what we get and spend it as wisely as we can.”

For more about the Projects Tour go to www.tdot.state.tn.us/tour.

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