Today's Daily Times has a front page report on our meeting with Alcoa City officials, noting our recent decision to "switch tactics."
As reported in the article, we are suggesting that the original TDOT proposal to improve the existing Alcoa Highway corridor should be given another look and a fair hearing among all the stakeholders, including affected residents along the right of way of the proposed bypass alternative.
More after the jump...
A key point here is that the original TDOT Environmental Assessment was presented for public comment with one option - improvements to the existing corridor - or the "no build" alternative. After local businesses objected, a new plan for a bypass alternative was drawn up by local governments and a second TDOT proposal and Environmental Assessment was presented for public comment that only proposed one option - the new bypass - or "no-build." The original proposal was not included for consideration.
This is unusual, because TDOT frequently presents multiple options with different alignments for consideration, and gives the public and other stakeholders an opportunity to comment on their "preferred alternative." The people of Blount County have not been given an opportunity to state a preference for the improvements v. the bypass alternatives. The one thing almost everyone agrees on, though, is that "no-build" is not an option.
Today's Daily Times article quotes a 2001 statement by then TDOT Commissioner Bruce Saltsman saying that after "soliciting input from the public" and "conducting discussions with affected parties." TDOT "gave major consideration to the extensive right of way requirements" for the original proposal and had chosen to "go off-site and build a major section east of Alcoa Highway."
The public record does not support these remarks. In fact, the public record shows that TDOT studied the right of way requirements extensively in the original proposal, identified all the affected business and property owners, and concluded there was little significant impact. The public record also shows that the public was generally in favor of the original proposal, and that there is considerable public opposition to the bypass alternative.
Further, TDOT's decision to pursue a bypass alternative appears to be a result of lobbying by a few local businesses, the chamber of commerce, and city of Alcoa officials with little or no public involvement. There is no public record of any public involvement in that decision process that we have been able to obtain.
We have asked TDOT to provide public records such as minutes, names of participants, final reports, public comments, recommendations, correspondence, etc. about this series of local meetings and workshops involving businesses, the chamber and city officials and their presentation to TDOT. TDOT is unable to produce any of these records, noting only that a summary of the reason for the new proposal is contained in the 2004 Environmental Assessment. TDOT was also unable to provide any maps or drawings of the alignment for improvements as originally proposed.
We have also asked the City of Alcoa for any such records and thus far they have not been able to produce them. We had asked the City to have them available for our meeting, and asked again during the meeting for any records of who attended the meetings and what was discussed. Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson said during our meeting that he would try to locate them. There were also no maps or drawings for the original corridor improvement proposal available for the meeting.
Mr. Johnson did provide a list of dates when local newspapers covered the 2000 discussions.
In a June 3, 2000 article, the Daily Times published the following meeting announcements about transportation plans:
"The first meeting is at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the chamber. Primary discussion will include the review of the Blount County roads plan. Representatives from Wilbur Smith & Associates will discuss the status of this project. The second meeting is set for 8:30 a.m. Friday, June 16, at the chamber. The focus for this meeting will be to discuss Alcoa Highway design and construction. Representatives from Tennessee Department of Transportation and right of way offices will be available to discuss this project."
NOTE: There is no indication that a bypass was being considered or what neighborhoods, residences, and businesses would be affected. (It appeared in a "news briefs" section along with a report about Van Hilleary's upcoming wedding and some crime reports.)
In a June 17, 2000 article, a Daily Times report about the chamber of commerce transportation committee meeting states:
"About 50 local business leaders were on hand to discuss the project and what it could mean for businesses along the 2.5-mile stretch of highway."
In a July 16, 2000 article, a News Sentinel report on a chamber of commerce transportation committee meeting states:
"The panel Friday named a seven-member 'focus group' to study the plan, beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 1, and to make further recommendations. Panel members include merchants, government leaders and airport representatives."
The article also quotes the chair of the chamber's transportation committee, who conceded that TDOT delivered what the chamber had asked for but now they wanted to rethink it:
"Tommy Hunt, who chairs the Blount Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee, said the county got precisely what its leaders of a decade ago had asked for in state plans for a widened U.S. 129 route along the busy Airport Motor Mile.
We asked for a restricted-access, interstate-style access to be designed, and that's what we got."
In fact, there was no mention of a bypass alternative at this meeting, and instead the task force would study a modified version of TDOT's original plan to improve the existing corridor.
Then, in an August 10, 2000 article, the News Sentinel reported:
"Judging by the thumbs-up from a handful of business owners at Wednesday's briefing on plans for an alternate parkway route around the Motor Mile, officials should have no trouble gaining community consensus for their proposal to the state."
Regarding participants, the article states:
"The group included representatives from the cities of Alcoa and Maryville, Blount County, the Knoxville Metropolitan Airport Authority, Motor Mile businesses and the Blount County Chamber of Commerce."
In an October 12, 2000 article, The Daily Times reported that a local delegation had met with TDOT to lobby for building a bypass:
"The local delegation that approached TDOT with the alternative proposal was composed of Alcoa City manager Mark Johnson, Alcoa Mayor Don Mull, Maryville Mayor Steve West, Blount County Executive Bill Crisp, Blount Partnership President and CEO Fred Forster, incoming Blount Chamber Transportation Committee Chairman Tommy Hunt, McGhee Tyson Airport Executive Director Terry Igoe, Municipal Planning Organization official Jeff Welch and Terry Grubb (Alcoa's engineering consultant with Wilbur Smith and Associates). They met with TDOT Commissioner Bruce Saltsman, Chief Engineer Bill Moore and other top TDOT officials."
So in summary, there is no public record of these meetings, discussions, recommendations, public comment, etc., and there are no reports of public involvement in the decision-making process regarding a $100+ million highway project that affects several neighborhoods and residents. There was a regularly scheduled Alcoa City Board of Commissioners meeting on July 11, 2000, and the plans were apparently on the agenda for discussion. We will request the minutes of this meeting.
And finally, we again point out to Mr. Johnson, as we did in our meeting, that media coverage after the fact is not a substitute for public participation. For example, were residents of affected neighborhoods specifically notified, or were signs placed in their neighborhoods letting them know that the City of Alcoa and TDOT were planning to build a super-highway near their homes and parks? Were the owners of Pine Lakes Golf Course and nearby residents (whose properties will be condemned and taken by eminent domain) invited to the meetings and workshops?
Unfortunately we don't know because, to date, no one has been able to produce any official public records about the local planning and decision-making process.
• Today's Daily Times article states "An estimated 75,000-or-more vehicles a day travel Alcoa Highway." According to statistics provided by Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson, the actual number is 52,443 for 2009, down from 57,837 in 2004.
• The article states "Back in 2001, TDOT had originally proposed building two-lane, one-way frontage roads on both sides of the highway." The original proposal was developed in 1998-1999 and the first public meeting was May 16, 2000.
• The article states that "The intention is to speed through traffic around the congested airport and Motor Mile area." If the bypass is for through traffic, why are there six interchanges along the five-mile route?
• The article incorrectly states that "TDOT is currently developing an Environmental Impact Statement for the projects which is expected to be released in the spring. The EIS still needs TDOT and Federal Highway Administration review and approval." In fact, this would be good news if true. Unfortunately, TDOT is finalizing an Environmental Assessment, which is a preliminary report that is far more limited in scope than a full, in-depth Environmental Impact Statement. The Federal Highway Administration will review the Environmental Assessment and determine whether to order a complete Environmental Impact Statement. This is at least the second time the Daily Times has gotten this wrong.
• The online version of the article has a typo in the fourth paragraph. I believe I said "building a bypass," not "budding a bypass." This was corrected in the print edition.
PREVIIOUSLY: Our report on the meeting with the City of Alcoa...
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- TDOT PROJECT WEBSITE
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