KINGSPORT - City leaders recently "removed a line from a map" that will now allow the welcome center project to get back on track.
Earlier this month, Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips, City Manager John Campbell and Assistant City Manager Jeff Fleming traveled to Nashville to meet with Tennessee Department of Transportation officials to discuss the welcome center project.
Over the past four years, TDOT has been working to bring a new welcome center to the Kingsport area, located halfway between the Wilcox Drive and Rock Springs Road exits. The project hit a snag in 2004 when caves were discovered under the proposed site, which forced TDOT to slightly alter the center's location.
The project then appeared to be on track, especially since Gov. Phil Bredesen announced last June funding for rights-of-way acquisition for the project in fiscal year 2009.
However, Campbell said after he met with TDOT officials about the project earlier this year, it became apparent that another transportation project on Kingsport's long-range plan was holding up the welcome center project.
Since 1999, Kingsport has had on its long-range transportation plan the concept of realigning Wilcox Drive down Tidewater Court across John B. Dennis Highway to - at the time - the proposed Meadowview Pointe development. That project failed to come to fruition, but the realignment plan stayed on the books, and city officials envisioned the road tying in with the new welcome center.
However, the road was causing problems with TDOT officials and holding the welcome center project up, Fleming said.
"TDOT did indicate what was complicating the design process was the existence of a proposed Wilcox Drive Phase III, which introduces local traffic that would need to be accommodated in addition to the welcome center traffic," Fleming said. "Traditionally in a welcome center you try and keep local traffic and folks that are exiting separate. That's not to say at some point in the future we would like to readdress that subject, but (TDOT) indicated that was really creating a complexity that was causing some delay.
"(TDOT) indicated if we remove it from our list of current transportation priorities, that would go a long way toward alleviating some of the issues they're dealing with."
On Tuesday, the BMA voted unanimously to remove Wilcox Drive Phase III from the city's transportation priorities.
"It was a line on a map, and the line on a map was causing issues for the current project. (The realignment) is not budgeted, it's not funded in any long-range plan. It's just a conceptual line on a map that shows the future location of Wilcox Drive.
"By taking that line off the map, it simplified things for their designers," Fleming said.
The plan thus far calls for a new welcome center to be built on 25 acres of land near mile marker 5 on the south side of Interstate 26. Kingsport all along has insisted the welcome center be able to accommodate both northbound and southbound traffic.
Fleming said all of the conceptual designs he has seen include this feature.
"We felt good about the designs, and they'll have to pick one of those - what meets their budget, what is feasible - and then move forward from there."
In order for the welcome center to accept traffic from both sides of the interstate, a bridge would have to be built over I-26, Fleming said. In addition, new on- and off-ramps would have to be constructed and possibly an access road to Rock Springs Road.
Fleming said there is no time frame on when construction would begin.
"They've cautioned us all along that it's a pretty extensive project, and I think a lot of folks were expecting immediate results," Fleming said. "It's a very complex issue, and they have to literally dot every ‘i' and cross every ‘t.' It could be several years before you see actual traffic or construction at that site.
"Our interest is making sure Kingsport has done all it can do to be a good partner with TDOT."
Phillips said he was pleased with the TDOT meeting and that it was probably a meeting the city should have had six months ago.
"You can't take anything for granted," Phillips said. "You need to keep following up. I feel like the state is back on track and moving forward."