KINGSPORT — The Tennessee Department of Transportation will host two public hearings Tuesday on possible improvements to State Route 126 (Memorial Boulevard) between Center Street and Interstate 81.
The first hearing will be held at 11:30 a.m. at the Kingsport Civic Auditorium, 1550 Fort Henry Drive. The second public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. in the Sullivan Central High School gym, 131 Shipley Ferry Road, Blountville.
According to TDOT, the department has made efforts to reduce impacts to the community and environment in response to comments from citizens since the January publication of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).
TDOT said it delayed previously scheduled public hearings so that ample time could be given to review the public input that was received when the DEIS was published. This also allowed for further time to rework the design of the project. TDOT has incorporated new information in its analysis of roadway designs to minimize impacts. This includes the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s updated traffic model and new traffic counts.
In a press release last month, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said the department recognizes community concerns about the potential impacts to the East Lawn Cemetery and to Yancey’s Tavern.
“We have made modifications to the roadway design applying the new traffic information that will allow us to avoid grave relocations and impacts to historic property,” Schroer said. “Additionally, the potential impact to numerous residents and businesses has been reduced.”
The proposed modifications will be shared at the public hearings, in addition to the three alternatives (two build alternatives and the no-build alternative) studied in the DEIS. A panel of TDOT representatives from different divisions will be present to address questions. Right-of-Way Division representatives will also be present to address concerns about possible displacements and relocations.
Earlier this month the Sullivan County Commission hastily approved a resolution calling for TDOT to four-lane the entire 8.4 mile stretch of roadway in question.
But comments and questions from commissioners made it seem not all of them were clear on exactly what they were voting for — or maybe against.
State Rep. Tony Shipley, first elected after a campaign that played heavily on community desire for improvements to SR126, told the commission the timing was in order to get local support in place before the Dec. 11 public hearings.
“This is usual and customary for TDOT to ask for local bodies’ support and endorsement of the plan,” Shipley said.
Before the commission’s vote, Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey said the resolution was just a recommendation for Shipley to carry to Nashville and present to TDOT, to “let them know how important this is to us” and that the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen was going to do the same.
Godsey said TDOT “is not as aggressive” as the city and county would like for it to be on the SR126 project.
Later the same day, Kingsport Vice Mayor Tom Parham told the Times-News that the city and county, along with Shipley and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, were working together to push TDOT to make SR126 four lanes from Center Street to Cooks Valley Road. Parham said local officials were confident there is enough room to four-lane the roadway without negatively impacting either East Lawn cemetery or historic Yancey’s Tavern.
Parham said the BMA would likely vote on the issue well ahead of TDOT’s public hearings.
But that has not happened.
Sullivan County Commissioner Mark Bowery came before the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen last week and asked city leaders to go on record supporting a resolution similar to one the Sullivan County Commission approved last month in support of the 126 project.
However, the county resolution’s wording calling for SR126 to be four lanes all the way from Center Street to I-81 gave the BMA some heartburn.
Kingsport’s position for years has been to support the 4-3-2 proposal, where SR126 is four-laned from Center to Cooks Valley Road, three-laned from there to Harrtown Road and then two-laned to I-81.
Mayor Dennis Phillips said TDOT Commissioner John Schroer was not happy with the four-lane phrasing in the county’s resolution and noted it could have an effect on the future of the project.
“Let’s see what the public hearings bring, sit down with the county and see what we can propose with the money we have available,” Phillips said.
Also last week, some residents of the area launched the Web site www.fix126right.com. In an e-mailed press release, the group stated TDOT recently acknowledged a four-lane section could be placed between Yancey’s Tavern and East Lawn without disturbing any graves.
Asked late Friday for comment on that statement, a TDOT spokesman said from what he understood that was true.
“However, it would not be in compliance with federal guidelines and this is a federally funded highway,” said Mark Nagi, TDOT Region 1 community relations officer.