Knox road widenings put on hold

Failure of funding bill means work suspended

By Don Jacobs

Drivers will have to handle the two-lane section of Concord Road near Northshore Drive for a few more years.
The same goes for nearly 12,000 motorists daily traveling the two lanes of Washington Pike between Interstate 640 and Murphy Road in East Knox County.

For those hoping for congestion relief near Lenoir City High School with a three-lane road, you'll need some patience.

Those are some of the immediate impacts of the federal government's inability to pass a comprehensive transportation funding bill. For the state of Tennessee, that means surrendering $190 million in transportation funds.

For the first time, the state is able to pass along that funding pain to the four major transportation planning organizations that prioritize and help fund projects in their areas. For the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which represents Knox, Blount, Loudon and Sevier counties, that means giving up nearly $8.3 million in road project funding.

"We've had to move those projects out further because of the loss of funds," said Jeff Welch, executive director of the Knoxville Regional TPO.

"Those projects are still moving forward, but we can't say we'll have them under construction for 2011," he said.

According to Welch, widening Washington Pike to four lanes with a center turn lane from the Target side of Knoxville Center to Murphy Road was estimated to cost $4.1 million. Improving the Kingston Street intersection and adding a 1,200-foot-long, three-lane road to serve Lenoir City High School was estimated at $2.3 million. Widening the last 4,000-foot section of Concord Road to Northshore Drive to four lanes with a center turn lane was estimated at $3.5 million.

In addition, Welch anticipates federal funding for local projects this year will drop from about $8 million to less than $5 million. To account for that decrease, he is asking the TPO executive board to shift money from Lovell Road widening work and moving improvements to Montvale Road from the local program to state and federal funding. All those changes reflect a drain of more than $12.7 million on the TPO's bank account.

The Knoxville Regional TPO will vote Friday on the funding changes. Welch said it was not difficult to select the projects to delay because none was set already for construction.

Knoxville is not alone in feeling the federal funding pinch called a rescission in funding. Paul Degges, chief engineer with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said the Chattanooga TPO is surrendering more than $5.4 million, the Memphis TPO is giving up more than $17.1 million and the Nashville TPO is relinquishing nearly $14.8 million.

"If it wasn't for the big cities, we would not have enough money to send back," Degges said Tuesday.

Degges said TDOT had financially protected its larger road projects by committing federal dollars. Smaller projects didn't fare so well.

"This is just going to delay some projects for two or three years," he said.

The pain level for the Knoxville TPO is increased by the loss of $5.1 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding.

"We have no CMAQ funds," Welch said. "The federal rescission wiped out our CMAQ funds."

Some of the projects those dollars were intended to help included adding turn lanes at the intersection of Ebenezer Road and Westland Drive, adding a turn lane to Kingston Pike at Lovell Road and upgrading the traffic signal and adding turn lanes at Northshore and Westland drives and installing a traffic signal.

Now TDOT, rather than the local TPO, will decide if those projects will become reality.