Oneida highway project prioritized for TDOT funding


Improvements to U.S. Hwy. 27 through Oneida may be one step closer to reality, as funding for the project has turned up on the 3-year funding roadmap of the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Long discussed but often delayed, the project would be aimed at eliminating the bottleneck that leads to rush-hour traffic backups from the Oak Grove intersection in midtown Oneida through the two-lane portion of Alberta Street. At its busiest times — typically at the end of the school day as school traffic flows onto Alberta Street from Claude Terry Drive and Main Street — U.S. Hwy. 27 sees traffic backed up to the Claude Terry intersection on the north end and beyond Industrial Lane on the south end.

Originally, much of the talk centered on a bypass through either Niggs Creek and Pine Creek west of Oneida or along the Norfolk-Southern line east of town. However, bypass talks have essentially been scrapped due to costs, and TDOT officials have focused on what was always "Plan C" — improvements to the existing U.S. Hwy. 27 route through town.

Last week, TDOT released its three-year transportation program, featuring $1.5 billion for 59 individual projects in 41 counties. The Oneida project was one of the 59 projects on the list.

"(Oneida) Mayor Jack Lay and I have been very vocal at the TDOT RPO meetings over the last three years to get this project on the priority list to be completed," Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals said Tuesday. "It appears that being loud and heard has paid off."

While TDOT's list is intended as a general roadmap for the department's projects over the next three years, there is no project-by-project priority detailed on the list.

However, the department's studies from last year indicate that the Oneida project is a necessity. Of 15 road projects that had been proposed in the region of which Scott County is a part, the Oneida project was the only one on which the roadway exceeded capacity in 2013. TDOT's study found a daily traffic count of 18,360 on the roadway, which is only rated for 18,000 vehicles daily.

In its current condition, the bottleneck portion of U.S. Hwy. 27 through Oneida scored an "E" on TDOT's range of A to F for its ability to adequately handle traffic flow, Lay said last summer. No other road in the region scored below a B.

Still, the phase of the project included by TDOT in its 3-year funding plan only includes right-of-way purchase for the 2.9-mile stretch planned for improvements, meaning that actual construction still isn't on the table within the 3-year window, which includes fiscal years 2015 through 2017.

And TDOT announced last week that it will not begin engineering work on any project until federal funding is released, maintaining Tennessee's status as one of four U.S. states to "pay as it goes" and carry no debt for transportation initiatives. Half of the state's funding for roads comes from the Federal Highway Trust Fund. With Congress at a stalemate on many major issues, the fund will run out of money by the end of September 2014 if new funding legislation is not passed.

"We are at a critical point in federal transportation funding and without action, there will be major impacts to TDOT programs," TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said. "We would be forced to develop an alternative program that reflects the loss of federal dollars, and focuses exclusively on the maintenance of our existing pavement and bridges rather than new projects."

Once the Oneida project does become reality, its exact scope still is not clear, since TDOT has not begun its engineering phase for the project. Almost a certainty is removing the 90-degree turn at the intersection of Alberta Street and Paint Rock Road (S.R. 456), as well as a turn lane for sections of the road that do not currently contain a turn lane, and improved signaling.

Those changes would cost an estimated $3 million, a far cry from the $50 million minimum investment that was estimated for a proposed bypass of Oneida.

But for an estimated $8 million to $10 million, TDOT could also widen Alberta Street to four lanes all the way through town, and Tibbals remains optimistic that the state will consider that possibility.

"The ideal case is that the four-lane would be continuous from Oak Grove through Oneida to the four-lane near Underpass Drive," Tibbals said. But, he added, keeping the project cost down is a priority for TDOT.

"I believe the project will be much more than just taking out the 90-degree turn and adding a turning lane where they do not already exist," Tibbals said. "Improved signalization could drastically increase throughput and traffic flow in our present configuration."

While connecting the current four lane sections of roadway from Oak Grove to south Oneida may not be the final product, Tibbals said, "It is the initial goal."

Missing from the state's 3-year funding plan was a proposed widening of S.R. 63 from Huntsville east to Interstate 75. However, the plan did include a truck climbing lane from mile marker 135 to mile marker 140 on I-75, the Caryville Mountain northbound grade. That is among several interstate truck climbing lanes across the state that TDOT plans to fund in the next three years, including one on I-75 southbound on Jellico Mountain from mile marker 145 to mile marker 148.

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