With a "right-sizing" attitude at TDOT, the prospect of spending $75 million to $114 million to add traffic lanes up Signal Mountain seems dim.
But for about $10 million, local officials could solve a lot of problems -- from rockfalls to washouts -- on the existing Signal Mountain Boulevard, according to a technical study by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
"For $10 million you could do a lot to improve its safety and reliability," Steve Allen, director of project planning for TDOT, told local transportation planners Tuesday.
Allen made his comments at an informational briefing, with no decisions to be made.
The study said it would cost about $25 million a mile to add another lane and full shoulders to U.S. Highway 127 between Suck Creek Road and Palisades Drive.
The cost isn't the only drawback, Allen said.
The road would have to be closed for two years or more with traffic routed onto the W Road. There would be "considerable impacts to adjacent property owners," the study states, and "significant visual impacts" because of the amount of rock that would have to be removed.
Allen showed a slide of a Fentress County project in which a broad highway was banded by wide, flat shoulders and rock cleared for yards away from the lanes.
"As an engineer, I think that's beautiful," Allen said to chuckles. "But as a property owner or a person who lives on Signal Mountain, you might not like this look."
TDOT also studied adding lanes to the top and bottom of the W Road to take some of the burden off U.S. 127. But that adds more than six miles to the route, has the same impacts on property owners and the environment and costs about $30 million a mile, Allen said.
Besides, he said, TDOT figures show little added traffic growth between now and 2031 -- from 11,980 now to 12,460 -- and a below-average crash rate.
But U.S. 127 is threatened, Allen added. Drainage is lacking or blocked, allowing water to undermine the road. Nine spots "are already starting to fail," he said. "What could happen is what happened in 2009."
That's when most of the southbound lane slipped down the mountain in one spot. The road was closed for weeks while state trucks hauled tons of rock to shore up the mountainside, then rebuilt the road.
Allen showed slides of "spot improvements" to improve drainage and stabilize the rock and soil to keep the road stable. He said TDOT is "right-sizing," looking for projects that provide the greatest good for the fewest dollars.
Most of the questions afterward came from Signal Mountain officials and residents, who haven't given up on the idea of either widening the existing road or building a new one.
Resident Sam Powell showed a possible route for a new two-lane road that parallels the existing highway farther up the mountain's slope. It would connect with existing U.S. 127 at Balmoral Drive. Above there, he thinks it would be possible to widen the road, possibly adding cantilevered lanes along the rock bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River canyon below.
The problem there, Allen responded, is the $100 million or so cost of the new road would be on top of the $75 million cost of widening the existing road higher up.
"Today's budget scenario is going to make that very difficult," he said.
Signal Mountain Mayor Bill Lusk acknowledged that closing U.S. 127 for 21/2 years to widen it would be a heavy burden for mountaintop residents.
"It's absolutely our lifeline -- it's the way we get to school and work, the doctor and the hospital; it's the way our businesses get their goods," Lusk said.
Maintaining what's there comes in second to a wider, better road, he said.
Still, "if this is the only practical solution to the problem, we need to find a way to move forward with the project."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@times freepress.com or 423-757-6416.