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UPDATE: TDOT announces widening plans for State Route 126

May 29th, 2013 3:02 pm by Matthew Lane

UPDATE: TDOT announces widening plans for State Route 126

Yancey's Tavern on Chestnut Ridge Road just off highway 126 in Sullivan County. Photo by Ned JIlton II

KINGSPORT - After more than a decade of planning, the Tennessee Department of
Transportation has made up its mind about what to do with State Route 126.


TDOT announced on Wednesday its plans on how to widen SR 126, from roughly
East Center Street to Interstate 81, choosing a modified option presented to
Kingsport and Sullivan County in December 2012.


The option - dubbed Alternative B-Modified - widens the road without
affecting East Lawn Cemetery or taking property from the historic Yancy’s
Tavern. In addition, the option is the cheapest of the three under consideration
and displaces the fewest residences and businesses.


The work is being done in an effort to improve safety and access along the
8.4 mile stretch of Memorial Boulevard, while minimizing impacts to the
environment and the community. The estimated cost is $97 million (the least of
the three build options) and construction could begin as early as late-2017.


"We understand the concerns of the community and drivers that use this
important roadway," said TDOT Commissioner John Schroer. "Alternative B-Modified
will not impact any of the graves in East Lawn Cemetery or the nearby historic
Yancey’s Tavern. Most importantly, we are confident this will address the
serious safety concerns along SR 126 while effectively moving traffic."


Mayor Dennis Phillips praised Schroer for his decision.


"I don’t know if TDOT could have made a better selection on how to do that
road," Phillips said. "I think a lot of thought went into it and (Schroer) came
up with a very good way to do the road. It gets them through the cemetery and
(Yancy’s Tavern) without doing damage.


"Once finished it’s going to be an outstanding road."


Rep. Tony Shipley (R-Kingsport), who has made the SR 126 project one of his
key issues during his tenure in Nashville, said he feels the chosen option is
inadequate for the future needs of the community.


"The commissioner assured me with all of the studies, engineering and highway
counts...everything will satisfy our needs for the foreseeable future," Shipley
said. "I think the commissioner took everything into account and made a decision
the road was adequate. I’m going to accept the man’s professional judgment and
move forward with it.


"But my prediction is the road will be inadequate by the time it’s
completed."


The proposed plan calls for a four-lane road (divided) from East Center to
Harbor Chapel Road, four lanes (modified to include a left turn lane) to Old
Stage Road, three lanes to Harr Town Road (in the vicinity of East Lawn Cemetery
and Yancy’s Tavern and then two lanes to I-81.


TDOT officials have said the new road would be compressed as it passes
between Yancey’s Tavern and the cemetery and avoids displacing any known grave
sites or taking property from the tavern.


Shipley said his recommendation for improving SR 126 would have been for TDOT
to secure a four-lane right-of-way all the way to Sullivan Central High School
and build the road out as required. Shipley said a four-lane road could go
through the Yancy’s Tavern and East Lawn Cemetery area without any problems if
TDOT went with a "minimal approach."


"You don’t build a sidewalk, bike trail and a median over Chestnut Ridge,"
Shipley said. "Nobody’s going to be riding bicycles and walking on a sidewalk
over Chestnut Ridge. That’s not going to happen."


Regardless, Shipley said he would be voting for the governor’s budget, which
will include funding for the SR 126 project.


"I don’t think you get the relief you’re looking for unless you build a
four-lane road all the way to Fall Creek Road or Hill Road, a more appropriate
place to transition to three lanes," Shipley said. "Indian Springs and Cooks
Valley are growing, booming areas in our community and I believe it would be
better served by a more robust engineering model than what’s been proposed."


Last year, TDOT completed a draft environmental study for the SR 126 project,
estimating 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 serious concern from some members of the
community, especially regarding the graves. In response, TDOT went back and
tweaked one of the initial options, dubbing it Alternative B-Modified.


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). It does
displace a volunteer fire department (like the other two options), but does not
affect any graves in East Lawn Cemetery.


Now that an option has been selected, TDOT will now finish the Final
Environmental Impact Statement and submit it to the Federal Highway
Administration for approval. Design and right-of-way purchases will follow and
construction could begin in late 2017.


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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