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TDOT unveils alternative plan for 126 at public hearings

Matthew Lane and John Osborne • Dec 11, 2012 at 3:56 AM

KINGSPORT — The Tennessee Department of Transportation pitched a new design for State Route 126 on Tuesday, a proposal that aims to improve the troublesome 8-mile stretch of highway without affecting East Lawn Cemetery or the historic Yancey’s Tavern.

The SR 126 project — more than a decade in the planning — calls for major safety and access improvements along an 8.4-mile stretch of Memorial Boulevard, from roughly East Center Street to Interstate 81. The initial recommendation for the road calls for four lanes from East Center to East Lawn Cemetery, three lanes to Harr Town Road and then two lanes with widened shoulders and improved curves to I-81.

Earlier this year, TDOT completed a draft environmental study for the project, which estimates the impact the widening project would have on homes, businesses, wildlife and waterways along the route, including the cemetery and Yancey’s Tavern. At that time, the study had two build options — one at $99.6 million affecting 162 homes, 30 businesses and 90 graves and the other at $120 million and impacting 241 homes, 43 businesses and 350 graves.

As expected, this information drew some serious concern from some members of the community, especially regarding the graves.

Please see TDOT, PA G E 2A Over the past 11 months, TDOT has continued to refine the study and last month announced modifications to the project based on the latest traffic projections, which show a decrease in the growth of traffic along the route over the next 20 years.

These modifications were unveiled during meetings in Kingsport and Sullivan County on Tuesday, while a panel of TDOT representatives was on hand to talk to and receive comments from the public about the options for the road. More than 200 people attended the meeting in Kingsport, while about 100 attended the one in Sullivan County.

"We know this project has been on the books for a while, and we want to move forward," said Assistant TDOT Commissioner Toks Omishakin. "Commissioner (John) Schroer spends as much time on this project as any other project."

According to an informational booklet distributed to the public on Tuesday, the new option on the table calls for a four-lane roadway with a grass median from East Center to Hawthorne Street with bicycle lanes and sidewalks on both sides. At Hawthorne, the median will transition to a two-way center turn lane to Harbor Chapel Road.

At Harbor Chapel, the road changes to two lanes with an eastbound truck-climbing lane with sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides. This three-lane roadway will continue to Old Stage Road. From there, the road will transition to a two-lane road with a center turn lane to Harr Town Road.

TDOT officials say the road is compressed as it passes between Yancey’s Tavern and the cemetery and avoids displacing any known grave sites or taking property from the tavern. Work would include a 2-foot retaining wall and bike lane on the Yancey’s Tavern side of the road.

Finally, at Harr Town the roadway transitions to two lanes with 10-foot shoulders and continues to Carolina Pottery Road with bike lanes on each side.

This option has an estimated price tag of $97 million and affects the least amount of property (100 acres), home-owners (104) and businesses (24). The option does displace a volunteer fire department (like the other two options), but does not affect any graves in East Lawn Cemetery.

More than two dozen people spoke during Kingsport’s session on Tuesday.

"I don’t care if you build an eight-lane road, don’t touch the graves," said Tim Bledsoe, who lives along Memorial Boulevard. "You can’t dig up my daddy."

Bledsoe continued by saying people in the community would rather see Yancey’s Tavern moved than any of the graves relocated. Another person said four-laning the entire length of SR 126 is not necessary and would devastate Chestnut Ridge. Last month, the Sullivan County Commission voted in favor of four-laning the entire 8.4 mile route of SR 126, however, none of the proposals presented by TDOT on Tuesday include this option.

Rann Vaulx, the owner of Yancey’s Tavern, said he is anxious to see SR 126 made safe, but he said the retaining wall proposed for his property would have an adverse visual impact. Vaulx suggested TDOT leave the roadway two lanes through that section of SR 126 to minimize the impact to Yancey’s Tavern.

Though the Sullivan County session drew fewer people, comments and questions were more numerous, with some speaking in favor of four-laning the entire stretch, some supporting the new option just unveiled by TDOT, while others proposed stripping sidewalks and bike lanes to make room for a "basic" four-lane roadway.

Several people spoke of their own losses of loved ones to wrecks on the road. It was described repeatedly as "a very unforgiving" road that leaves little to no room for error. Some said the road itself is not dangerous — it’s drivers and driving habits that create danger for themselves and others.

The first public speaker, noting TDOT’s statement that development of a plan began in 2003, asked what was taking so long to get actual work started.

"If something had been done, my wife would still be living," Scott Mendenhall said.

"There really is no good answer," replied TDOT’s Jim Ozment, going on to offer Mendenhall condolences. "All I can say is it is a process."

Ozment said initiatives are under way nationwide to improve that process — and that under the present administration in Nashville the SR 126 project is a high priority.

Another resident of the 126 corridor area said improving safety is number one among her concerns for how the project proceeds.

Charlotte Dade said she almost lost her husband in a serious wreck on the road several years ago — but she doesn’t think a four- or five-lane road is necessary to make the road safer.

Mark Nagi, TDOT community relations officer, said the public can continue to make comments on the options for SR 126 through Jan. 31. From there, TDOT will review all of the comments and in the spring announce which option — if any — will be taken. Ozment said TDOT would then finalize the environmental impact study by the end of the year.

Comments on the proposed plan can be sent to TDOT via email (tdot.comments@tn.gov  ) or via regular mail to SR 126 (Memorial Boulevard) Corridor Improvement Project, TDOT, Suite 700, James K. Polk Building, 505 Deaderick St., Nashville, TN 37243.

Since 1999, at least 18 fatal traffic accidents have occurred along the 8.4-mile stretch of SR 126, the most recent occurring last month when an off-duty Sullivan County deputy died when he rear-ended another vehicle while driving his motorcycle.

Over the past four years, TDOT has performed several hundred thousand dollars worth of improvements along the road — interim work while the main project has been in the development and study phase. This interim work has included installing centerline rumble strips and reflective markers, new guardrails and various road signs.

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