20 years later, Pellissippi Parkway Extension still sparks debate
By Lance Coleman, News Sentinel
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
ALCOA — Susan Keller says there's no more farm land being made in Blount County, and that's why she's not supporting the proposed Pellissippi Parkway Extension.
The 4.4-mile highway would connect State Route 33 with U.S. 321 and take 30 acres of Keller's family farm in the process.
"You have people who are very concerned about food supply but don't seem to understand the producer of it has got to have a medium on which to raise crops," she said. "When you keep covering land up with asphalt, cars and drainage pipes, it takes it out of production."
But Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson said plans for completing the Pellissippi Parkway Extension would include maintaining the rural nature of the land, because the natural beauty of the area attracts industry and jobs.
"Pellissippi Parkway will provide a major economic stimulus to the mountains for travelers as well as locals," Johnson said.
"It will help relieve traffic congestion now, and certainly in the future, that is forced by the current road network to come all the way into Maryville or Alcoa to go to the mountains on U.S. 321. That area is growing down there despite the fact road access now is not very good."
And so the debate goes.
For 20 years, Blount Countians and their elected officials have been arguing about, and litigating, whether the extension should be built.
Federal highway officials could make a decision regarding the final environmental impact statement for the proposed Pellissippi Parkway Extension by spring 2013, said Mark Nagi, a regional spokesman with the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Pellissippi Parkway, connecting West Knoxville and Blount County from Interstate 40 to Alcoa Highway, opened in 1992. The last interchange at State Route 33 was opened in 2005.
Since then, no movement has been made to extend the route.
In 1999, according to TDOT, officials initiated an environmental assessment to evaluate the effects of alternatives for the project, and in April 2002, the Federal Highway Administration issued a finding of "no significant impact." The state was set to begin buying property.
Then, in June 2002, a group called Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension (CAPPE) filed a federal lawsuit, and a month later, a U.S. District Court judge imposed a preliminary injunction on planning, financing, contracting, land acquisition and construction for the project.
Following an appeal by Federal Highway Administration, in August 2004, the U.S. District Court issued an order modifying its previous injunction, and in September 2004, TDOT announced it would prepare an environmental impact statement to identify and evaluate the effects of the proposed project and to identify measures to minimize harm.
On July 20, 2010, TDOT presented a draft environmental impact statement at a public hearing at Heritage High School.
While many in the audience wore green stickers indicating their support for the extension, the majority of people who stood to comment spoke out against building it.
Some said improving existing roads such as Sam Houston School House, Peppermint, Hitch and Helton roads was the way to go. Others said TDOT should save the money and not build anything.
TDOT collected comments on the draft statement until August 2010. Nagi said a consultant now is preparing a package to be sent to several federal and state agencies for review and comment. After receiving comments, a public announcement of the preferred alternative will be made, he said.
Nagi said additional studies will then be performed on the preferred alternative for archaeology, hazardous material and noise. The Federal Highway Administration could approve the final environmental impact statement by spring 2013, he said.
'It would sadden me'
Nina Gregg, founder of CAPPE, believes TDOT should just improve existing roads and leave farm land alone.
"If our governor and state Department of Transportation are being considerate in spending the taxpayers' dollars, this does not seem like the right choice," she said of building the highway.
But Greg McClain, Maryville's city manager, said the highway would alleviate stress on a number of roads and give the community direct access to the interstate system.
Bryan Daniels, president and CEO of the Blount Partnership, said city and county leaders are waiting on TDOT to determine the next course of action.
Johnson said when TDOT requested that officials with Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County choose a route, they all picked the shortest route from State Route 33 to East Lamar Alexander Parkway (U.S. 321).
"It is back in the hands of environmental consultants, and they're wrapping up their environmental impact survey," he said.
The route they chose runs right through Keller's family farm off East Brown School Road.
"Their whole attitude is they look at farm land as being underdeveloped open land, and that really distresses us," she said of TDOT.
Restoration International Outreach Church is building on 12 acres adjacent to where the proposed highway would connect with East Lamar Alexander Parkway.
Pastor Pacer Hepperly said that while he is excited about the visibility and accessibility the highway would bring, he realizes it comes at a steep cost to others.
"I'm sensitive to the hardships of families losing property. I live on a farm and it has been passed down at least four generations," he said. "It would sadden me if my property was taken away."