Conflicts over the design of a long-sought modernization of Highway 27 from Olgiati Bridge to Interstate 24 have stalled the project and tested the city and the Tennessee Department of Transportation for years. There’s virtually no elbow room to spare between buildings on the slope of Cameron Hill and those at its downtown foot for a remodeling of the curvy highway that would simultaneously make it safer, straighter, more efficient and more pedestrian friendly at the key interchanges at Fourth Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
So it was inevitable that local architects and urban planners suggested changes to the latest TDOT plan for the Fourth Street junction when they finally got a chance to offer a group critique of the plan. Others who have seen the plan are concerned, as well, that the proposed roundabout at M.L. King Boulevard would challenge the mobility of the large number of Westside residents who regularly walk — or ride mobile wheelchair scooters — into town from College Hill Courts and the high-rise apartments for seniors.
What’s troubling is that TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, irked by the issues raised against what he believed was the final plan, says he will now yank the plan off his current three-year construction calendar. That would put it back in the design hopper until the department and the city could reach a consensus agreement.
The last time that happened occurred 12 years ago, when TDOT and former Mayor Bob Corker’s office divided over a state proposal that was widely criticized as a high, formidable barrier that would have effectively walled off downtown from the Westside. The city shouldn’t have to get off the current construction calendar again to resolve the latest concerns.
The current proposal clearly attempts to address the problems raised in the Corker administration. The south-bound offramp from a widened Olgiati Bridge would essentially mirror the city’s proposal then for a softer, boulevard-style parallel road that would empty traffic at signaled intersections at Fourth and Sixth Streets, and at the proposed roundabout at M.L. King Boulevard — all on the west side of Highway 27.
Connections to the ramps that would serve ingress and egress at Fourth Street still present a problem for local planners, however. A local architectural group believes the plan needlessly squeezes developable land and greenspace by the Creative Discovery Museum, and worsen the traffic-centric use of Fourth Street. The group wants to move the on-ramp back nearly 80 feet, and also to slow the release of traffic from the offramp to a speed compatible with the city’s effort to incorporate Fourth Street into the Riverfront’s pedestrian-friendly zone.
Other critics reasonably believe the proposed roundabout at M.L.King Boulevard would create an unyielding obstacle course for pedestrians on the Westside trying to walk into town. Their concern reasonably raises questions about the benefit and necessity of the roundabout.
Mayor Ron Littlefield, intent on keeping the construction schedule on track, opposes the proposed changes. His priority, however, should be to quickly assemble the sort of broad consensus that he and TDOT failed to achieve in the development of the current plan. Commissioner Schroer would also have to be persuaded to consider changes that may require expedited public comment hearings to meet federal criteria for highway construction funding.
None of this will be easy at this point, but it would serve important public interests. It’s more important to get the highway plan right than it is push through a plan that still needs work.