The murkiness surrounding the 840 case, pitting environmentalists against state bureaucrats, has suddenly dissipated.
Williamson County Chancery Court Judge Russ Heldman ruled last week that it’s “crystal clear” to him that state officials ignored their own rules, saying they should provide relief for their obvious “abuse of power” in constructing the roadway.
In an oral ruling that was a slam-dunk for environmentalists, Heldman offered strong words for state officials, concluding, “This court wants to urge...TDOT [Tennessee Department of Transportation] to do the right thing for the people of this county and this state...and to think long and hard about whether or not there should even be an appeal in this case.”
Heldman continued an injunction against state construction of a 16.6-mile stretch of state Route 840 between Highway 100 and Thompson Station Road. Before the injunction is lifted, Heldman said, TDOT must prepare an in-depth environmental impact statement and get the approval of the Williamson County Commission for right-of-way acquisition.
Heldman agreed with arguments made by attorneys David Lemke and Julian Bibb, representing a group of property owners in the path of the disputed section of the roadway, that TDOT Commissioner Bruce Saltsman failed to enforce his department’s own standards in planning and building the southern loop of 840. If completed, the 185-mile beltway would encircle the Metro Nashville region an average distance of 35 miles from the city’s center, and cost the state’s taxpayers an estimated $6.3 million per mile.
In a blistering opinion, Heldman cites the Tennessee legal code as well as evidence submitted by TDOT to establish that the department did not give “due regard to topography [and] natural conditions” in planning and building the ring road. As evidence, Heldman points to “the disastrous polluting of the waters which comprise and feed into Turnbull Creek during 840 construction there.” The judge also notes that TDOT’s environmental assessment of 840’s impact failed to acknowledge that the numerous springs and streams flowing through southwest Williamson County even existed. Heldman has ordered TDOT to bridge the waterways in the path of 840 rather than channel them into concrete culverts.
“What concerns this court most,” Heldman wrote in his opinion, “is the commissioner’s incredible plan to run the centerline of 840 right through Franklin Springs, a water supply source for Franklin residents from 1901 to 1991 and now a reserve source of water for county residents who have suffered drought-like conditions in recent years and may likely experience the same or worse conditions in future years.”
Heldman said that TDOT’s and Commissioner Saltsman’s actions amounted to “abuse of power” and “arbitrarily and capriciously disregarded” Tennessee law.
Saltsman didn’t take Heldman’s advice on the subject of an appeal. Almost immediately, he announced his intention to move up the legal chain to the Court of Appeals. “Despite this setback,” Saltsman says, “we are confident that this project will ultimately be completed as the Legislature directed 15 years ago. Unfortunately, every day that this lawsuit delays construction, Tennesseans lose, not only due to increased construction costs, but also due to the loss of the benefits the completed state Route 840 will provide.”
TDOT spokesperson Luanne Grandinetti says that “based on the historic increases in construction costs, the delay is costing TDOT $246,000 per month.” State Route 840 opponent Gene Cotton counters that this figure is “bullshit,” saying “TDOT just builds other projects during the delay, projects they wouldn’t have gotten to as soon if they hadn’t stopped work on 840.”
Heldman’s ruling is the second major blow to TDOT for environmental negligence in the past year. Last March, TDOT agreed to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) demands for a cash penalty and environmental cleanup of just over $3 million for violating the Tennessee Waste Disposal Act, the Tennessee Hazardous Waste Act, and the Water Quality Control Act. It was the second-largest civil penalty in state history, second only to fines for federal environmental violations at Oak Ridge.
The 840 ruling is also the second time Heldman has tied TDOT in knots. The judge ruled against the department in a suit concerning Native American remains discovered at the site of TDOT’s proposed widening of the Hillsboro Road/Old Hickory Boulevard intersection. That case has been pending before the Court of Appeals for more than a year.
Some TDOT critics would prefer that the 840 case be stalled for a similar period. They hope to create a political climate more sympathetic to their viewpointand less supportive of TDOT’s heavy-handed bulldozingduring the course of the gubernatorial campaign next year. To do that, they know they have to educate voters about TDOT’s abuses. They also know they have to play the game that special interestsparticularly the road buildershave long since mastered. “The road builders’ lobby has always had both sides coveredDemocrats and Republicans,” one Williamson County activist says, stating the obvious.
When asked if the victors sang Hallelujah in the watering holes of Williamson County after Heldman’s ruling, road critic Gene Cotton says the reaction was more subdued. “We all went to Fourth and Main [a restaurant in downtown Franklin] for a glass of wine afterwards. But there was no real celebration. We’ve still got a long way to go, and a lot more to do.”
Cotton’s plan is nothing less than a reform of Tennessee’s transportation planning. “For me this is not just about 840 anymore. It’s about the whole way that transportation issues are decided.”
If Heldman is upheld on appeal, that reformist vision might begin to unfold. In the future, TDOT might actually have to prove that a road is needed, that a road would deliver the transportation and economic benefits TDOT officials promise, and that those benefits would outweigh the impact on the state budget; on planned growth and land use; on natural, cultural, recreational, and historic resources; on air and water quality; and on travel patterns.
If TDOT had been subjected to such a burden of proof for 840, its officials might have been forced to acknowledge that, in terms of transportation planning, the beltway is a fossil. Anyone who bothered to look at such cities as Atlanta and Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. should realize that ring roads ultimately make for sprawling patterns of development, greater congestion and more air pollution, and that they have a crippling impact on the traditional downtowns of the large cities and small towns they bypass.
“What Judge Heldman’s decision has done is give people hopepeople who in the past have felt that you can’t fight city hall, or in this case, TDOT hall,” Cotton says. “His opinion shines a bright white light on how TDOT operates.”
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