Power to the Peeps 

In TDOT’s new culture, people govern roads—not the other way around

In TDOT’s new culture, people govern roads—not the other way around

The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) made history last week. For the first time since man has walked upright, the agency decided not to widen a road.

Commissioner Gerald Nicely announced that he was putting “on hold indefinitely” the department’s plan to add two travel lanes and a turning lane to the five-mile stretch of Hillsboro Road between Berry’s Chapel Road and Old Hickory Boulevard in Williamson County. “It was made clear to our staff that the majority of the people using this road and living near it do not want it expanded to five lanes,” Nicely said in a press release. “In the unlikely event these plans were to be revived during my tenure as commissioner, TDOT would do so only after a thorough public hearing process and the concurrence of local officials in the affected area,” he added.

At a community meeting TDOT hosted in July, over 200 citizens made their hostility to the $23 million project crystal-clear. Residents of the River Rest condos, in particular, protested the encroachment that the added girth to the road would bring onto their property. “If you put that road any closer to my house, I’m going to put up a popcorn stand for all the truckers,” said one decidedly unhappy River Rester. Others said that the addition of turning lanes to intersections with Tyne and Old Hickory boulevards had already eased congestion on Hillsboro Road. Protesters said they preferred to spend longer drive times on a two-lane road with a rural character to speeding more quickly on a highway. Had Nicely not nixed the widening, right-of-way acquisition would have begun this year, with construction to commence in 2005.

TDOT’s original plan was to widen Hillsboro Road in Davidson County first, and then work south into Williamson County. But state Sen. Douglas Henry blocked the bulge from Harding Place to Old Hickory Boulevard after strong objections from influential people who live nearby. Not to be denied, TDOT engineers shifted to Williamson County and began moving north. The pavers widened Hillsboro Road to five lanes from just north of Franklin to Berry’s Chapel Road. The section to Old Hickory Boulevard was to be the next step in the unrolling of an asphalt carpet that would have delivered four travel lanes of traffic to the two lanes in Davidson, creating an inexorable logic for the whole thing to swell.

Gene Cotton, the president of the Southwest Williamson County Community Association who has spent years fighting TDOT over the southwest quadrant of state Route 840, applauds Nicely’s decision. “It’s incredible, and reflects a major shift in TDOT policy. They’re really making a concerted effort to get the public involved. It’s a whole new ball game down there.”

Ever since TDOT bulged to massive proportions with the influx of federal highway funds in the 1960s, the mantra at the agency has been “the best road is a big road.” That mindset sacrificed the quality of life of residents along roads to speed up the travel times of commuters heading to distant suburbs. The department also developed a reputation for listening to the lobbyists—road and bridge builders, concrete and asphalt suppliers, petroleum sellers, home and mall developers—and ignoring the environmental impacts of their spending sprees. During his gubernatorial campaign, Phil Bredesen attacked TDOT’s “arrogance and abuse of power” and vowed to make changes if elected. The decision to keep Hillsboro Road slim is just one example of making good on that promise.

Changing the TDOT culture required some alterations in personnel. Bredesen appointed Gerald Nicely—a tough government bureaucrat with no ties to the road building industry—as commissioner. Nicely in turn has made his priorities clear by making Ed Cole—an environmental sympathizer and former director of the Cumberland Region Tomorrow planning advocacy group—chief of TDOT’s environmental and planning division.

One of Nicely’s first actions was to commission the University of Tennessee’s Center for Transportation Research to conduct “listening sessions” across the state on 15 controversial proposed road construction projects. The center’s 15 reports—released last week—are a devastating indictment of the lack of public participation in the projects’ planning.

The center’s study of north 840 calls for a reexamination of the purpose and need for that section of the beltway. “I think it’s highly questionable that we’ll proceed with the project under the circumstances,” Cole says. And the study of south 840 criticizes as “inadequate” TDOT’s assessment of the environmental impacts on wetlands and streams.

Even before the report appeared, Cole says, “We already backed up to resurvey the unbuilt sections of southwest 840. We found streams that had never been identified in the part between Pinewood Road and Thompson Station. Preserving the water quality will require us to bridge those streams rather than culvertize them. That will cost more, but that’s the way it needs to be done.” Cole also explains that TDOT is considering reducing the design speeds for the most environmentally sensitive stretches. “You need a lot more right-of-way for a road designed for 70 mph than you need for 50 mph. If we design it as a scenic highway, we can make an asset out of what some think is a problem.”

Another controversial road proposal closer to Nashville’s city center wasn’t part of the UT study. Nevertheless, TDOT will revisit the widening of Ellington Parkway from four to six lanes. Residents of East Nashville have criticized the project for its impact on the largely African American neighborhoods that flank the parkway. “We want to open up the planning to the community, which in the past was only involved regarding the placement of noise barriers,” Cole says.

Back in the old days, a TDOT official once explained how citizens were—and were not—involved in planning road systems. “To build is an engineering decision,” the official said. “Our engineers identify the need, they see the capacity issues and they reach a decision about solving them. We involve the affected neighborhoods in how a project is designed. We don’t ask the neighborhoods if we should build or widen.”

In these brand new TDOT days, that way of doing business no longer applies.

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