Need for Hwy. 321 'improvements' questioned

Tammy Cheek News Herald

After hearing a plan for road improvements along the corridor of U.S. Highway 321 (State Route 73) during Monday's Lenoir City Council workshop, people from several area businesses voiced their objections to proposed median closings.

Many urged the council to reconsider the closings, warning those closings could affect the property values and customer base of the businesses involved. 

While Developer Mark Matlock said he applauds the engineers who did the study on their efforts to improve Highway 321, he asked if it were possible for the engineers and council to get together with the businesses on the issue. 

Matlock said he leases property along the corridor to about 20 to 25 people. "All those intersections need to be looked at, too, with business people in mind," Matlock said. "These businesses - I can tell you this because I am living it firsthand - are having a tough time. "They need every advantage they can have," Matlock said. "I'm just afraid of the repercussions we may have in doing this (median closings)." 

One business owner, Tom Mills, said the majority of his business and the incomes it is producing to pay the taxes are coming from outside this county. This means the customers are coming south and turning across to get in, Mills said. "Given that, if you closed it (the median), the only way to get there now is to go down to the traffic light, which is in front of Taco Bell and Highland Park," he said then challenged, "Gentlemen, try to take a U-Turn there. I have twice hit the brakes, got almost clobbered because you are allowing right turns on red lights there ... and I'm trying to do a U-turn. Think about that one. You aren't going to allow me to do a U-turn at that light unless you fix that light so you can't turn right on red," he said. 

Christopher Rhodes, an engineer with Kimly-Horn and Associates Inc., which conducted the study and came up with the plan, said the light issue is a simple fix with a NUCT-compliant traffic sign that makes right turn traffic yield to those making a U-turn. He warned left-turn traffic needs to keep in mind they can only make a turn when they have the arrow. "Try that, gentlemen, when you've got United Community Bank having an access off of Highland Park and traffic, after hours, cuts through and jumps back on 321, using their bank entrances," Mills said. "If you could put up signs that made it safer, it could be just as easy to put up a sign at the intersection that said don't hit anybody sticking out in traffic," said Rico Silvera, general manager and property owner of Convenient Auto and Marine. He said putting up a sign does not guarantee compliance, nor does it create safety."I watch people make right turns on red all the time when it's not compliant," he said. 

Silvera said while he supports all the concepts of the proposal in general, specifically with two proposed median closings, he said, "it's up to the council to make sure these businesses that have been here, built their businesses around those lane openings and have a significant customer base, don't get our customers trumped off from us."

Mayor Matt Brookshire said he wanted the public to understand the access off of Highway 321 into these retail and office centers and other businesses is not being cut off. "What are being talked about are the median cuts out in the center," the mayor said. "Everyone's access into their developments off of Highway 321 will remain intact; so no one's entrance into their property is being cut off." 

Nevertheless, Silvera said in addition to his business, the median closing cuts of two medians also serve Lenoir City Ford, Gondolier Restaurant, Tennessee Sports Complex, State Farm Insurance, Realty Executives, A Plus Check Advance, American Male Hairstyling, Edward Jones, Dealer Service Corporation, A-Plus Paint and Body Shop and Midas Auto Care and he said they can make a significant case it impacts Taco Bell.

He said on the other hand, two other intersections, where significant money would be spent to improve those intersections, are in front of abandoned businesses - Harry Lane and the Dinner Bell. 

Silvera referred to the study, indicating it costs $20,000 - or 4.2 percent of the total cost - to close the medians at Gondolier and Courtyard Plaza. "If you were to turn around and add north and southbound turning lanes to those, it adds a net $30,000 to the entire project," he said. "I would ask the council to consider very carefully."

Silvera said he has had two appraisals of his property done in the past 18 months, and both of them added a significant value because there's a median cut in front of his property. "We are changing 28 intersections, 25 improvements and four closures," he said. "These two particular closures (Gondolier and Courtyard) are going to significantly impact the property value of those property owners and the access of their customers to them. We draw a lot of people from out of this area who spend their tax dollars in this area."He said when customers have to make a U-turn to get to his business, it will slow them down.   

Tom Mills said he was concerned about data used in the study in regard to traffic flow and the business he drives. He said his business draws customers for indoor soccer and gymnastics, after school and after work.  "These numbers don't reflect that kind of count," Mills said.

Brookshire acknowledged there are elements to the plan those in the audience do not like and asked to direct those comments to the city council while directing technical questions to the engineers.  "Keep in mind, the folks at Kimley-Horn Associates are simply doing a job," the mayor said. "They've done the technical work. They brought back to us what they think is the best plan for improving traffic flow and safety on 321." 

Brookshire explained the city asked the engineering firm, Kimley-Horn Associates Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., to make a study of the corridor and come up with a plan, which could get started next year, to improve the highway in regard to safety and traffic flow. The project is estimated to cost between $600,000 and $700,000. The design and planning cost the city close to $200,000. 

Last month, City Administrator Dale Hurst said the city council has asked for construction funding from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). He added the council is leading the project and it hopes to receive a positive response from TDOT. Jonathan M. Moore, project engineer with Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., explained part of the plan, which include:

Installing a southbound left turn lane at the Lane GM dealership;

Installing a northbound left turn lane at Shaw Ferry Road to turn into Shaw Ferry Road;

Lengthening the south median at the Texaco/Exxon service station to bring the median size up to TDOT standards and help direct traffic;

Installing a northbound left turn lane and a southbound left turn lane on the median at the Dinner Bell and Kings Inn intersection;  

At the intersection of Highway 321 and Simpson Road (in front of Burger King), lengthening the north median, installing a northbound left turn lane and a southbound left turn lane;

Lengthening the south median at Pearl Drive to bring it up to TDOT standards and direct the traffic to the appropriate driveways;

Closing the median opening at Gondolier Pizza restaurant by installing a median of grass there to prohibit any left turns at that location; 

Closing the median opening at Courtyard Plaza as well; 

Installing a northbound and southbound left turn lanes at Hickman Street (beside Hardees'); 

Closing the median opening at Suntrust Bank; 

Installing a northbound and southbound left turn lanes at Enterprise Car Rental;

Closing the median opening at Ingles Shopping Center to prohibit any kind of left turns into or out of the side streets to that location; 

Installing a southbound left turn lane at Second Avenue; and 

Modifying traffic signal phasing to allow a dual eastbound left turn lane to turn north onto Highway 321 and to extend two through lanes southbound on Highway 321 to merge before it goes back to two lanes. Moore said that would require modification of the existing island channeling, pavement markers and signs at the intersection of U.S. Highway 321 and U.S. Highway 11 (Broadway).

Hurst pointed out plans to close the median opening at Ingles was not in the original study. 

Moore agreed the area at Ingles Shopping Center was not part of the original corridor study made in 2007, which he said was the genesis for all the company's recommendations approved by the city, TDOT and the Knoxville Regional TPO. "That one was added due to the original planning a left turn lane there, but the driveways do not line up good, and it's better just to close that one; and there's currently a signalized access at the intersection of McGee (Boulevard) for that shopping center," he said. Moore added Kimberly-Horn would recommend now to closure of that median. 

Vice Mayor Eddie Simpson asked for the reasons for closing the other three medians. "The one at Ingles I can now understand better than any of them that one is not real beneficial because you have to take a right turn anyway. You can't go straight across so that one makes good sense," Simpson said. However, he reminded council members during the last planning commission, it had a request from a new convenience store owner at Eaton's Crossroads to leave open the median there. Despite recommendations from the state and the city's codes enforcement officer Leslie Johnson to close a median within 100 yards from Eaton Crossroads' traffic light, the planning commission voted to recommend leaving open that median. Simpson pointed out he abstained from voting on that recommendation.

He explained the median opening near Eaton Crossroads is in the middle of a stack lane, or turn lane, there is an opening so people can get across. "It was really a bad situation," he said. "If we get development across the street, it's going to be worse; but how do we as a body close three intersections - and the businesses have been there for years - and yet we leave one open for a new business and approve that it stay open."  

Johnson said for three months the planning commission kicked back that decision on the median near Eaton Crossroads to TDOT, for it to look at the situation. TDOT did say the contractor of the convenience store had to improve the turn lane at that business. "TDOT did let it agree to let it go in," she said. Thus, the planning commission allowed the median opening.  "I'm scared - it (Eaton Crossroads median opening) is in the city," Simpson said. "It's probably one of the most critical areas that we could have possibly done that, but I think we set a precedent when we did that," he warned.

Councilman Tony Aikens sided with Simpson by saying he didn't think it was fair to keep the median at Eaton Crossroads open for that business while the city has businesses on the highway that were open for years and to close their medians. 

Simpson asked the engineers to "take another hard look" and see what it would cost to add stack lanes or turn lanes at the other three median openings and possibly the one at Ingle's as well. "Because we are talking about businesses that are now going to be choked off to an extent," he said. "I know they can go to the next red traffic light, where you do have stacked lanes, but I think it's very critical that we take another look at that at least." 

Christopher D. Rhodes with Kimley-Horn and Associates, said in the study, the firm looked at three things: median spacing, accident rates along the corridor and actual traffic volume. 

In terms of median spacing, Rhodes explained TDOT recommends a minimum median spacing of 660 feet. "A lot of intersections that we're talking about closing the median, the spacing between those medians is 350, 400 to 450," he said, adding federal departments are even more stringent that state DOTs. "That's why spacing became an issue; they are just too close together," he said. 

Rhodes indicated the accident rate along the entire Highway 321 corridor is 33 basis points higher than the statewide average. "You can ask, 'What causes accidents?' Well that's the number of median openings and number of left turns and right turns and median crossings that happen on the corridor," he said. 

Rhodes aid the engineers finally looked at traffic volumes. "We're serving nearly 30,000 vehicles on (Highway) 321, and a lot of these median breaks were probably servicing less than 250 over the course of the day," he said. "In terms of putting a left turn lane at some of these locations, keep in mind, as we design the left turn lane, it's got to have so much storage and has to taper back into 321. Because these are so closely spaced together, we can't meet the criteria to service left turn lanes at each of these three medians," he explained. "I certainly realize there are existing businesses out there," he said then added, "Keep in mind, our most important thing is progressing traffic and trying to reduce accidents along the corridor," he said. 

He acknowledged, however, some of the median closures will require U-turn traffic at left turn traffic signals.
"If the overall purpose is to increase safety and reduce drive time, those two median cuts contribution to delays to the entire corridor seem to be in the lower 20 percent," Silvera indicated, asking if that were correct. "I would say the delay at those intersections is it's is not one of the more heavily traveled intersections in terms of turning," Rhodes replied.