It's dead. Definitely dead.* TDOT finally issued a statement on the James White Parkway extension's demise, as reported this morning, and it pretty much confirms what we told you: They're washing their hands of the whole mess.
Here's the statement from TDOT Commissioner John Schroer:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -Today's action by the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) effectively stops work on the James White Parkway Extension Project. Until today, TDOT continued work on the project because it was included in the Knoxville TPO's Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The project was developed in part to address safety and congestion issues along Chapman Highway. We remain concerned that our efforts to improve conditions along Chapman Highway will not be sufficient now, and particularly in the future.
This morning's vote on the four-year TIP removed the controversial road project from the TPO's list of approved projects. If a regional agency doesn't approve a project, it can't get federal funds, and that was the only way the JWP would have ever gotten built. The TPO Executive Board must vote a second time to approve the draft TIP on Sept. 25, and three members of the board -- Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor, and Knox County Commission representative Mike Hammond -- were all missing today.TDOT will not build projects that aren't supported by communities and our local partners. Today, we received a clear statement by the current members of the Knoxville TPO that they do not wish to see the project progress. We will no longer commit any further resources to this project.
Here's where the * comes in: Waters is not very happy about what happened today. (No surprise, since Sevier County folks seem to be the ones really pushing the road.) Waters says he usually doesn't attend the TPO meetings himself but sends a representative. (Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett usually does the same thing.) However, Waters' usual guy was unavailable today, and Waters had things already scheduled, so he didn't attend. But if he had known what was going to happen, he would have been there, he says. And if he had been there, he would have been the one vote against removing the project.
"First of all, I'm concerned about the process," Waters says. "I don't think anyone was aware of this coming up today. TDOT had just announced new in-depth public hearings, and I thought that's where everything was headed. That process should have moved forward."
When asked as to whether he will try to get the James White Parkway project back on the TIP in September, Waters says he just might. "That is a good question. I think Sevier County is against ending the project," Waters says.
Of course, Waters will need a majority vote to keep the project alive, and given the way nine people on the 13-member board voted today (TDOT representative Ralph Comer abstained from voting), Waters has his work cut out for him.
However, the JWP is still technically alive as far as the TPO's long-range mobility plan goes. It was just adopted in April and goes out to 2029. But TPO Executive Director Jeff Welch says the agency will be working as quickly as possible to amend that plan to remove the project from it. Welch also notes that the cost of a new environmental assessment for the project, which TDOT would be required to do per federal regulations if the road didn't get started in the next four years, would likely be another reason TDOT's giving up on the project.
"The message that we received from the community was clear," Welch says. "Let's improve our existing corridors. ... Let's work with the fabric we have instead of building a new facility."
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who made the original motion to kill the project this morning, is of course delighted. An official statement released by her office reads, "I would like to thank Commissioner Schroer for listening to regional representatives at the Transportation Planning Organization and ending TDOT's consideration of an extension to the James White Parkway. This action protects the Urban Wilderness and allows us to capitalize on this incredible regional economic and tourism opportunity as an outdoor recreation destination. I look forward to continuing to work with TDOT to address safety and traffic issues along Chapman Highway and our other vital transportation corridors."
Former Knoxville Mayor and current Gov. Bill Haslam was more circumspect. His office commented, "We respect the TPO's decision and will look for other alternatives to ease congestion and improve safety along Chapman highway."
Even if the road gets debated again next month, we're still advocating a celebration tonight. The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club is hosting a bike-in movie at the Public House tonight, and certain beer sales will go to help fund more new bike trails in the Urban Wilderness -- maybe even on the new 100 acres. Movie starts at dark. If that's not your speed, we recommend splurging on something bubbly. You did it, kids. You killed the big bad road.