“Spot improvements” has become the most worrisome phrase in TDOT vocabulary.
Under the pretense of throwing a bone to local communities while canceling once-promising highway improvement projects, the state Department of Transportation has become quite adept at smoothing ruffled feathers with pledges of spending at least a little money rather than abandoning those projects altogether.
This week’s announcement that S.R. 63 will not be widened from two lanes to four from Huntsville to Interstate 75 is the third time in four years that a highway improvement project in Scott County has been downgraded to “spot improvements.”
First it was S.R. 52 between Elgin and Rugby, which was originally to have been widened from 11-ft. lanes to 12-ft. lanes with a 250-ft. right-of-way that would have allowed for future expansion to four lanes. That $38 million project was trashed in 2014 in favor of a $900,000 project that would focus on “spot improvements,” the most visible of which would be a minor reworking of the West Robbins Road intersection. It was a savings of more than $37 million for the state, but will do little (those spot improvements have not yet been tackled) to improve traffic flow between Elgin and Rugby.
It’s easy to dismiss the S.R. 52 abandonment. The highway isn’t especially heavily-traveled, though the widening of the roadway would certainly have benefited those in southern Scott County who use it as part of a regular commute to Jamestown or on to Cookeville.
Next, though, it was U.S. Hwy. 27 in Oneida. The original plans for a bypass of the town’s two-lane section between the Boys & Girls Club on the south end and Oak Grove on the north end was trashed in favor of a $3.5 million project to rework the Depot Street intersection and the 2nd Avenue intersection.
The chief expense of that project — which has required the relocation of four businesses, including K&M Sporting Goods in the former Marcum Parts building, Hippy’s Fix-It-All Garage, 4WD Performance and the Scott County News — was the acquisition of right-of-way from 16 different parcels of property around “the corner,” as the steep curve at the Depot Intersection is affectionately known locally.
The scaled-back approach to U.S. Hwy. 27 was a slap in the face to local motorists. It does nothing to eliminate the bottleneck at Oak Grove, therefore it will do nothing to improve traffic flow. Considering that TDOT’s own studies have shown U.S. 27 through Oneida to be one of the most crowded highways — relative to its capacity — in all of East Tennessee, the abandonment of plans to make significant improvements to the highway as a means of saving money is a head-scratcher.
Now comes the S.R. 63 announcement, which is another splash of cold water to the faces of local motorists, particularly those who commute out of county on a daily basis. While a widening of S.R. 63 from two lanes to four between Huntsville and the interstate was a long time off — these state highway projects tend to move at a snail’s pace — it was a proposal that offered hope for those who spend between 250 and 300 days a year making the trek across S.R. 63 to reach job sites in Clinton or Knoxville. With TDOT’s latest announcement, which was that a widening of the highway is being abandoned in favor of unnamed spot improvements, those commuters are left with no hope that the main route into Scott County will ever be significantly improved.
In a series of projects in the 1980s and 1990s, TDOT widened the routes inside Scott County that link Oneida, Huntsville and Robbins from two lanes to four. In the two decades since the last of those projects was completed, however, nothing has been done to address the fact that every highway leading into Scott County is a two-lane road.
That might not be too much of an issue if this were a self-sustaining community. However, according to the state’s own estimates, between three and 4.5 out of every 10 workers who are gainfully employed are driving out of the county to reach their job site — every single day. Perhaps it isn’t fair to call Scott County a bedroom community, but it is certainly fair to point out that our economy relies on the industrial scene in our neighboring counties, and the roadways linking Scott County to her sister communities have become severely dated.
Scott Countians pay their fair share of the state’s recently-increased gas tax. In fact, once you’ve taken into consideration the average commute of this county’s typical worker in comparison to the average commute in many other counties, it might be safe to assume that Scott Countians pay more than their fair share of the increased gas tax.
To be fair, the state never identified S.R. 63 as one of the $10 billion backlog of projects that would be funded by the increased gas tax. But the chief point of the tax increase was that the backlog of projects could be tackled so that future projects could be considered. And even as that heightened gas tax has been implemented, TDOT continues to scale back its proposed projects in Scott County.
Just as spot improvements to U.S. 27 through Oneida will do nothing to relieve after-school and first-of-the-month traffic headaches in town, spot improvements to S.R. 63 east of Huntsville will do little to improve the commutes of the thousands of Scott Countians who make that drive every day, and they’ll do little to improve the county’s chances of attracting new industry.
It’s unfortunate that TDOT has repeatedly scaled back projects in Scott County in recent years. We can hope that Governor-elect Bill Lee and his as-of-yet unnamed chief of transportation will hold true to his campaign promise to return an emphasis to rural Tennessee.
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