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Editorial: West Ridge students deserve a safe road

Editorial Board • Dec 16, 2019 at 10:00 PM

It should be disappointing to teachers, parents and students that even as construction continues toward an August 2021 opening, safe and proper access to West Ridge High School remains uncertain.

This issue should have been resolved when building contracts were approved last year after months of bickering among members of the Sullivan County Commission. But commissioners put it on a back burner, where it apparently remains. At a recent retreat of the Sullivan County Board of Education, Chairman Michael Hughes reiterated that access to West Ridge must be improved. But even funding a required impact study remains undetermined, never mind how road work will be paid for.

Creating a turn lane off Lynn Road to the main entrance to the school and other short-term improvements could be followed by longer-term projects to make for better access, Hughes said. In a recent meeting with Kingsport, county school officials were told the city requires an impact study before improvements can be made to Lynn Road, which fronts the school, since it is inside the city limits.

“I think the impact study will give us some direction,” Hughes said.

It is a given that a turn lane will be built in front of the new entrance, he said, although no decision has been made on whether the school system or County Commission pays for it.

But it’s the county, not the school board, that requires direction.

For several months early last summer, a resolution languished on the commission’s monthly agendas, deferred multiple times as supporters tried to rally others to join them. It would have given then Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri permission to hire an outside firm to design a road that would connect Highway 357 (on the opposite side of the exit from Airport Parkway) to Lynn Road at the school site. That road would pass Second Harvest Food Bank (the former Sam’s Club) then curve right and then left around Waste Management. It would require construction of a new section of road to reach Lynn Road.

Belgeri referred to it as the Jericho Trail Extension and estimated it would cost about $3 million. The resolution called for $300,000 to pay for the design work, and the county’s purchasing office solicited bids. Belgeri offered to fund the entire $3 million from county highway department surplus.

But some commissioners said the surplus should be spent on paving roads countywide. Others said Belgeri, who had earlier lost his bid for re-election, wouldn’t be around long enough to get the project underway. His successor, current Highway Commissioner Scott Murray, campaigned against having the highway department provide sole funding for the project.

There was another effort to amend the resolution to include the $3 million for construction with half the money coming from the highway department surplus and the other half coming from what was then an $11 million surplus in the school budget. But that also failed.

If Sullivan County schools had taxing authority, there might be a basis for an argument over who is going to pay for the necessary road improvements to West Ridge. It doesn’t, and as Chairman Hughes has said, the school system can’t legally spend money on public roads.

Some may not like it, but this issue is “in the County Commission’s lap,” as Mayor Richard Venable told commissioners last year. And that’s where it needs to be resolved. Already, it may be too late for design work and construction on the connector Belgeri proposed.

Like the school or not, it is being built, and it will open. Whether the students, parents and bus drivers who trek to the school daily will have safe roads to get there sits squarely — and only — in the lap of the Sullivan County Commission.

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