published Friday, February 28th, 2014

Cook: Behind every good event

Becky Roberts, a traffic engineering coordinator for the city of Chattanooga who deals with road closures for special events, will have her last day at work Friday is after more than 40 years of service.
Becky Roberts, a traffic engineering coordinator for the city of Chattanooga who deals with road closures for special events, will have her last day at work Friday is after more than 40 years of service.
Photo by John Rawlston.

If you know all these names -- Bessie Smith Strut, Chattanooga Market, Mainx24, Missionary Ridge Road Race -- then you need to know this name, too.

Becky Roberts.

For the last 42 years, Roberts has worked in the city traffic engineer's office; since sometime in the 1970s -- it's been so long, she doesn't remember exactly when -- she's been the traffic engineering coordinator. In other words, she's the point person for every single special event in Chattanooga.

From the tiniest neighborhood block party to the USA Pro Cycling Championships, any event that involves even the briefest of road closures requires her blessing, her stamp of approval.

"Anything that requires a permit," she said.

That means if you've ever run, walked, biked, partied, paraded or danced on some public street in this city, then you owe Becky Roberts a Riverbend-sized thank you.

Because today is her very last day.

"Goodbye tension, hello pension," her retirement party sign reads.

Hired in 1972 after graduating from Chattanooga State, she was the only woman in the traffic department. Back then, you could count our city's annual events on one hand.

"Missionary Ridge Road Race. The Armed Forces Day Parade," she said. "And the Chattanooga Chase."

Things began shifting around here; our polluted skies cleared. Our waterfront was reborn. From her desk, Roberts watched the annual events grow from three a year to more than 150.

"We're now attracting national and international events," she said.

Meeting in the conference room with the large street map of the city, Roberts is chairwoman of the special events committee with representatives from Fire, Police and Parks and Recreation departments. They review any and all event applications.

"We pick it apart and see if it's doable. Whether we have enough police. How to maintain it safely," she said.

How will businesses be impacted? If we close this road, is there another nearby drivers can use? Will they still be able to reach the hospital? How many police officers will this take?

Logistically, her job is like part mapmaker, part crossing guard; she's a human traffic light, telling people -- often thousands of them -- where they can go and when.

"Tour de Georgia was the most intricate," she said. "But USA Pro Cycling is comparable."

She's served under seven different mayors.

"Walker. Rose. Roberts. Kinsey. Corker. Littlefield. Berke," she said, counting them on her fingers.

The best?

"Ron Littlefield, without a doubt," she said. "He did more for the city employees than any of the rest of them."

She praises John Van Winkle (city engineer) and Blythe Bailey (Department of Transportation head) for knowing how to run good departments and treat their employees generously.

She thinks there are two things Chattanooga can do to open up even more of our city streets to good times.

"The Open Streets Initiative," she said, "and more block parties."

The Open Streets Initiative is a nationwide idea that believes if you close off streets to vehicular traffic, then all these democratic and fun things will fill the gap. For example: close off M.L. King Boulevard for a day and evening, and you'd see it flourish with bikers, walkers, vendors and smiling college students.

The same happens with block parties: "they bring cohesiveness to neighborhoods," she said. "People get out and meet their neighbors."

Yet in poorer neighborhoods, block parties are often foresaken because folks can't afford to rent the street barricades and pay the permit fees.

"Wouldn't it be nice if the city had something like a grant?" she said.

Call it the Becky Roberts Block Party Grant; let her old colleagues distribute it to worthy crowds.

"I work with people who are like family to me," she said.

Tuesday at the City Council meeting, they presented her with a Distinguished Citizen award; the crowd cheered. In retirement, she plans on volunteering more, not rushing through her workout at the gym, and laughing with her husband and friends.

"I can have a beer with my lunch," she said.

For someone who's given her career to helping hundreds of thousands of Chattanoogans have a good time, I hope she has two.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
please login to post a comment

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »


Find a Business

400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.