“We’re going to get a new road,” Shipley, R-Kingsport, told a Greater Kingsport Republican Women’s luncheon in early June. “It’s going to be a safer road. It’s going to be a new technology road. The state is going to spend between $90 million to $100 million (the project’s estimated cost) right here in the district. ... Folks, we’re going to be doing pretty good.”
What Shipley didn’t say is he has spent much of this year at odds with the Tennessee Department of Transportation over the project.
Shipley’s correspondence with TDOT, obtained by the Times-News through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows he began expressing concerns about the project in late January.
TDOT has selected “Alternative B-Modified” as the preferred alignment for the project extending from East Center Street in Kingsport to Interstate 81.
TDOT’s plan calls for four lanes running from East Center Street to Harbor Chapel Road; three lanes, including two travel lanes and one eastbound truck climbing lane, from Harbor Chapel Road to Old Stage Road; three lanes from Old Stage Road to Harr Town Road in the vicinity of East Lawn Cemetery and Yancey’s Tavern; and two lanes from Harr Town Road to I-81.
“Alternative B-Modified will not impact any of the graves in East Lawn Cemetery or the nearby historic Yancey’s Tavern,” TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said in a prepared release. “Most importantly, we are confident this will address the serious safety concerns along SR 126 while effectively moving traffic.”
Alternative B-Modified will also require fewer residential and business relocations, TDOT said.
In a letter to Schroer last January, Shipley argued that keeping the present highway section from Harbor Chapel Road to west of Old Stage Road is unsatisfactory.
“This section is currently known by area residents as the ‘racetrack’ as drivers in the center lane hurry to pass slower traffic to transition into two lanes prior to Old Stage Road,” Shipley wrote. “I am very concerned that with the future growth in the Indian Springs area (which is inside the city of Kingsport growth boundary) that the highway project with the modified Alternative B will have insufficient capacity and become very congested in future years.”
Shipley asked TDOT to “evaluate a minimal four lane” from Harbor Chapel Road to Cooks Valley Road with no grassy median and only a center barrier to separate travel lanes with minimum paved shoulders.
“The section between East Lawn Cemetery and Yancey’s Tavern should be further compressed to a minimal four lane to avoid moving graves or disturbing the historical property. ... Please note the Sullivan County Commission passed a resolution favoring a four lane from East Center Street to Interstate 81,” Shipley told Schroer.
Schroer replied that adding a new alternative would delay the project several more years.
“Since safety is a major need of the SR 126 project, the suggested minimal four lane would not meet the project’s purpose and need,” Schroer told Shipley in a letter the following month.
In a March letter, Shipley responded he remained “unconvinced” TDOT’s proposals would address highway concerns or future growth.
He again pitched his request for TDOT to consider a minimal four lane from Harbor Chapel Road to Cooks Valley Road.
“I would appreciate a precise measurement of the four lane potential between the (East Lawn) graves and Yancey’s Tavern and a comment exactly why that geometry will not support a four lane,” Shipley told Schroer.
Shipley again insisted the proposed three lane section from Harbor Chapel Road to west of Old Stage Road — essentially the present configuration — is unsatisfactory.
“I believe that such a design will technically fail before the entire project can be completed,” Shipley observed.
Shipley ended the March letter by telling Schroer he appreciated the “magnitude of the task” faced by the department.
“I do not envy your responsibility,” Shipley wrote. “I pray that you can appreciate that my task is to stand up for what I believe is right and true and in the best interest of my district.”
Schroer responded in late March by telling Shipley the project’s design could change during the upcoming design phase.
The following April, Shipley repeated his earlier requests, including the one for a “basic four lane.”
Shipley and TDOT have been at odds in the past. They had contrasting views about a repaving project on State Route 126 in 2010. Shipley did a TV political campaign ad — entitled “Promises Made, Promises Kept” — showing the highway being repaved. But TDOT said the job was “routine pavement management.”
TDOT is now preparing a final environmental impact statement on the SR 126 project. Design and right-of-way acquisition phases will follow. TDOT says the construction phase, which is estimated to cost $97 million, could begin in late 2017.
For more information, go to http://www.tdot.state.tn.us/sr126.
Below are links to all of the emails obtained by the Times-News between Shipley and TDOT.