840 Goes to Court 

News and musings from the controversial ring road trial

News and musings from the controversial ring road trial

Franklin— “840 is a road nobody wants but can’t be stopped because the state, in its infinite wisdom, says it will be good for us.” That’s how a shopkeeper on Franklin’s Main Street described the controversial roadway last week to a customer curious about the crowd gathering in front of the Williamson County Courthouse.

It was the first day of the so-called 840 trial when road critics and media representatives descended en masse on the picturesque Franklin square. Also in full flower during the first three days of the trial, which began last week and is scheduled to resume on Sept. 18, was the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s [TDOT’s] “trust us; we know what’s right” attitude.

State Route 840 is the southern half of a 185-mile ring road that, if completed, would encircle the Metro Nashville region with a concrete belt through the surrounding counties, at an average distance of 35 miles from the city’s center. TDOT is building 840-South with state funds, a project estimated to cost $6.3 million a mile. At issue in the trial is whether TDOT can proceed with the construction of a 17-mile stretch of 840 in southwest Williamson County.

A group of property owners in the path of the roadway, joined by the SouthWest Williamson County Community Association (SWCCA) and the Heritage Foundation, is suing TDOT Commissioner Bruce Saltsman in Williamson County Chancery Court, claiming that the commissioner has failed to enforce his department’s legally mandated procedures in planning and building the road’s southern loop. Specifically, the suit alleges three breaches: that TDOT did not execute a full environmental impact study for the road; that TDOT did not respond to a request from state Rep. Mike Williams for an economic impact study of 840; and that TDOT didn’t get approval from the Williamson County Commission before acquiring right-of-way for the thoroughfare in that county. The state road-building agency has been buying land even though the commission hasn’t approved the land buys.

Last month, Judge Russ Heldman issued a temporary injunction, stopping work on 840 between Highway 100 and Thompson’s Station Road. The state has yet to introduce proof in the case, but its lawyers say the injunction—which is still in force—is costing TDOT $250,000 a month.

After a three-year legal battle, 840 critics are finally having their day in court. Last week, spectators packed the pews in the small courtroom, and attorneys and their clerks wrestled with the dozens of boxes of documents each side is relying on to prove its case. The state’s motion for summary judgment—for the judge to make a decision without hearing evidence—was neither approved nor rejected. Instead, Judge Heldman began the trial. “It’s very important to this court for people to leave this courthouse knowing that their judges are listening, and that the people have been treated fairly,” he said.

So far, only the plaintiffs have presented evidence. Attorney David Lemke, who, with the lawyers representing the Heritage Foundation, is working without pay, submitted reams of paper and called numerous witnesses—current and former employees of TDOT, consultants to TDOT, and SWCCA president Gene Cotton. Lemke cited state law requiring the TDOT commissioner to establish standards for the construction of highways. He then used documents and testimony to prove that the department has such standards, but that the agency has failed to follow them. In particular, Lemke hammered on inadequacies in TDOT’s environmental assessment for 840-South, its failure to identify many of the streams and wetlands the road will cross, and its failure to analyze adequately the environmental impact of the road on the local waterways.

Cross-examining the witnesses, state attorneys led by Phyllis Childs countered with the kind of mind-numbing distinctions between the words “standards,” “procedures,” and “policies” reminiscent of President Clinton’s quibbling over the definition of “is.”

The state’s basic point is that “standards” are quantitative and deal only with construction specifications—the width of lanes and road shoulders and dimensions for bridge supports, for example. TDOT’s manuals of “policies and procedures” for planning infrastructure, on the other hand, contain not “standards” but “guidelines,” and are discretionary. Commissioner Saltsman, therefore, can’t be held accountable for enforcing “standards” on whether or not a road should be built, and if so, where to build it. Saltsman is only responsible for enforcing “standards” on how to design and pave, state lawyers argued.

Such is the “trust us” logic at the heart of the TDOT culture. It was also the operational mantra for supporters of the divine right of kings. The message is that TDOT will use its imperial judgment to decide what to build and where. The department will describe whatever it wants to build—more and bigger roads—as “improvements,” and its technocrats will take care of whatever impacts construction might have on our lives only in the process of designing and building a fait accompli. And because “standards” are technical data, no citizen without a degree in number-crunching has the standing to object.

Whether Judge Heldman will find such arguments legally persuasive is still unclear. But the reasoning behind the arguments is unlikely to triumph in the court of public opinion. Heldman has, however, firmly indicated that he expects the state to answer in full the questions the lawsuit raises about 840. During the trial, the judge has noted that the introduction to TDOT’s highly detailed manual of procedures for right-of-way acquisition—a supposedly discretionary document—says, “strict adherence to the instructions is expected.” He also noted that TDOT’s environmental assessment for 840-South “summarizes what’s out there now, before the road hits. How can I tell from this document the impact on streams and water quality?” Heldman asked. “Where’s the beef?”

And, in a move that had the state’s attorneys scrambling for explanations, a visibly frustrated Heldman repeatedly asked why Saltsman had not appeared in his courtroom when the commissioner is named as the defendant and could be the best witness for some of the points the plaintiffs have introduced. “I don’t know any law that allows a judge to order the respondent in a lawsuit to actually appear, but the commissioner would be warmly welcomed if he could take a few moments of his precious time” to answer some questions, Heldman said.

Those questions go far beyond the legal issues raised by the trial and reach into the realm of common sense. More and more citizens are asking why the state is spending in excess of a billion dollars on 840 without bothering to prove that the road will do what officials claim—bring the kind of economic development the region needs and reduce congestion on existing interstates and arterials. Citizens also want some guarantees that the road will be built in a way that minimizes the inevitable damage to the land and waterways it crosses. Many fear that 840 will just redistribute the currently thriving economy into ever more sprawling patterns.

If TDOT really wants to know what sensible infrastructure looks like, its bureaucrats should take a hike through the blocks surrounding the Williamson County Courthouse. Strolling on the sidewalks along Main Street—which allows three hours of free parking—it’s easy for anyone to see that the walls of the storefronts are a comfortable fit, not too tall, with the architecture of various periods knit together into a steady pedestrian rhythm.

The walkers I encountered in the morning hours before the trial looked at me curiously—I was, after all, obviously a stranger to these parts—and said hello. In search of coffee, I headed south on Fourth Avenue, remembering the location of a cinnamon bun long ago consumed. At Merridee’s Breadbasket I found not only caffeine but what seemed like half the population of Franklin.

A small crowd occupied the chairs and benches on the sidewalk out front. Workers heading to office roll call emerged with cups and paper sacks already stained with the secretions of sticky buns.

Inside, the place was bustling. People sitting at the tables greeted newcomers by name. As I stood in line for a Danish, I overheard a group of men talking about Bush and Gore, tax cuts, and health care. As they pushed back their chairs one guy laughed and said, “If we could solve all the world’s problems over a cup of coffee, we’d all be kings.” When the cashier told me my total was $1.88, I asked her if she was sure she’d included the coffee. “Got it,” she said. “You’re from Nashville, aren’t you?”

What I discovered that morning was not just a cheap roll and java but precisely what most people seem to want in a lifestyle, whether it’s in upscale Franklin or the less affluent towns and neighborhoods of Middle Tennessee—a sense of community.

And I rediscovered what I already knew, but sometimes forget when I’m hurtling through Nashville from one highway to another. In places designed for people, rather than cars, it’s just easier to live. It’s easier to grab a cup of coffee and then get to work on time, easier to have a bite and buy a birthday present on your lunch hour, easier to know your neighbor and watch out for your neighbor’s kids. Building a sense of community with the pieces of daily life is hard work, when the necessities of life are fractured by arterials and so-called freeways.

Many people seem to think that growth itself has caused the fracturing. It’s really the patterns of growth, the way we have pulled the pieces of our lives apart, segregating them into separate ghettos hyphenated by road rage. We can make roads that work like streets, build new towns that work like old ones, and preserve some greenspace around them. But we won’t build such communities as long as TDOT is at the wheel, driving us on the path of 840.

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