Editorial: Finishing road would be good for Blount County
By NEWS SENTINEL EDITORIAL BOARD
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Plans to extend the Pellissippi Parkway to U.S. 321 in Blount County have been on the drawing board for decades, with a final decision on the environmental impact a year away.
That gives supporters and opponents of the project another 12 months to debate and discuss the controversial highway that connects to Interstate 140 on one end and will provide a more direct route to the "Quiet Side of the Smokies" on the other.
Opposition to the project is understandable. Highways — especially the four-lane, interstate kind — take land and private property. No matter the level of attention paid to the environment, the area very likely will never be the same.
Nevertheless, completing the highway to U.S. 321 (Lamar Alexander Parkway) will be in the best interest of Alcoa and Maryville, as well as Blount County. Barring a major undiscovered obstacle, when federal highway officials make their decision about the final environmental impact, they are likely to agree.
"Pellissippi Parkway will provide a major economic stimulus to the mountains for travelers as well as locals," said Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson. He said plans for finishing the parkway include maintaining the rural nature of the land because the natural beauty helps bring industry and jobs as well as tourists.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation website on the project cites current safety issues on roads and streets in the area, "including roads in the Maryville core" through which travelers heading to and returning from the mountains must pass.
"Numerous rear-end crashes and angle crashes have been reported due to high volumes of traffic and lack of management access along the roadways," the website noted.
The parkway extension would alleviate that problem by building around Alcoa and Maryville and avoiding having traffic exit at Alcoa Highway (U.S. 129) with its high volume of vehicles near the Knoxville airport. The Pellissippi Parkway Extension was one of six Bicentennial Parkways in Tennessee's 1986 Urgent Highway Needs Plan. A portion of the parkway — Interstate 140 — ending at Alcoa Highway was completed in 1992, and a portion that intersects with State Route 33 opened in 2005. The 4.4-mile segment that will end at U.S. 321 is the last portion — and the most fiercely contested.
Completion of the route was the subject of a lawsuit in June 2002, followed by an appeal by the Federal Highway Administration. In September 2004, TDOT said it would prepare an environmental impact statement to identify any problems and seek to minimize them.
The draft EIS was presented at a public hearing in July 2010. A consultant is preparing a package for federal and state agencies. That will be followed by additional comments, selection of a preferred route and more studies. All of this will take a year.
Then, perhaps, Blount County will be able to look forward to the progress and economic benefits that completion of the Pellissippi Parkway Extension will bring.