Chapman Highway: The $45 million road heist?

Nick Della VolpeOn the Grow, South Knox

Relax. This does not involve a gun. We are talking lobbying, jawboning and jiggering of statistics to superimpose a progressive vision on heavily traveled Chapman Highway. You know, transform it into more of an idyllic footpath, with bikeways and mass transit.

Safety First? TDOT has been planning some $45 million in safety improvements to be made along the first six miles of Chapman Highway. That business-lined segment, which is within the city, has three times the number of serious auto accidents compared to comparable roads.

“Serious” in this context means fatal accidents and/or ones causing severe bodily injury. Almost everyone agrees addressing such conditions is important. There is nothing like a stopped vehicle, waiting in the left/fast lane to make a turn on a busy roadway, getting rear-ended and slammed into oncoming traffic. Sadly, this has occurred more than once in recent weeks.

TDOT is seeking $45 million to add a planned center turn lane to that entire stretch of Chapman Highway, and realigning some of the odd-angled road intersections to a more perpendicular (readily visible) alignment coupled with new traffic light controls, and creating safer shoulders where dangerous off-road terrain can add to accident severity.

TDOT projects this combination of road fixes will reduce serious accidents by 37 percent. TDOT is also planning to add sidewalks to help pedestrians travel safely parallel to the roadway.

By the way, TDOT has already invested over $30 million in improvements along the full length of Chapman Highway in the past several years. This $45 million plan would be additive, focused on the six-mile stretch nearest downtown.

Alternate Vision. But that’s where there is a parting of ways. The city administration in conjunction with the local TPO (Transportation Planning Organization) has undertaken a campaign to substitute their vision of Chapman Highway.

How, you may ask? Mostly by a concerted PR-and-visioning effort.

First, they have decided to shift from TDOT’s safety-first focus by running their own “public surveys” to gather helpful opinions on what is desired. So far, so good – except that the choices the participants were asked to select or rank in the initial survey left out the main category: safety.

Instead, the choices included “congestion” (which ranked No. 1) and “pedestrian and bike access” (ranked second ahead of lesser choices, like “land use, access management and transit”). The first survey left out safety as a choice, since “everyone wants safety,” so why ask? Really? Weren’t they ranking actual public needs?

Psychologists and pollsters often refer to this as playing to “confirmation bias.” Who among us hasn’t gotten a “survey” from some political party or candidate that asks loaded questions (just before the request for a donation)? You know: “Which do you prefer, motherhood and apple pie or oppressive communism?”

Second, the local team redefined “serious accidents and fatalities” by counting each wreck as one “crash,” even if five people were killed or maimed in that accident. Accurate under its own definition, perhaps, but misleading as hell. That characterization effectively diminishes the seriousness of the actual safety facts. Too many Chapman travelers have died or been maimed in serious accidents.

Third, the city expended a portion of its limited TDOT grant money (some $900,000) to have road consultants Kimberly Horn further survey the public last week at South-Doyle Middle School and also available online on improvement options for various numbered intersections and road segments. Interesting. That same Kimberly Horn has been the state’s consultant for the state’s planned Chapman fix. When rehired by the city, they pitched possible roadway widenings to add bike lanes and walkways separated from traffic, plus a tree-lined center island that would limit left turns into existing businesses. What’s wrong with that? The sketches are certainly pretty….

Road layout options for Chapman Highway

Business Impact? Oh wait, in most places along Chapman there is not enough existing right-of-way to do that. When I asked the “open house” Kimberly reps (who manned the picturesque maps on tables) would the city have to take business frontages and parking spaces? the answer was “yes,” although there may be some areas with enough right-of-way for separated bike/pedestrian area.

Remembering the Cumberland Avenue fix, I asked, “Won’t that affect businesses?” The answer: “It may …” Really? Aren’t these businesses the same folks that pay substantial property taxes and collect sale taxes for the city? Who exactly does the city represent? The average Joe or Jane? Visionary planners? The bike clubs?

More Facts. Finally, I can’t help but wonder: Isn’t this the same city administration that has effectively roadblocked the earlier completion of James White Parkway? You know, convert the four-lane roadbed into a $10 million bicycle gateway park. Completion of the parkway was intentionally taken off the TPO’s priority list and thus effectively defunded at the mayor’s request. A nice chess move perhaps … Misplaced priorities?

Artist’s rendering of the new Gateway Park, where Mayor Madeline Rogero will give her final budget address on Friday, April 26.

Let’s face it, if you have to drive north to I-40 from Seymour or South Knox, or return home that way from the city, wouldn’t you choose an efficient thru-traffic road that doesn’t pose stop-and-go hazards and crisscross intersections on days when you are not planning to shop? When that topic came up in earlier TV interviews, city reps variously said: “Chapman doesn’t have a safety problem” or simply deflected the topic to “Let’s focus on fixing Chapman.” Any question of relief-valve need is said to be merely “a dispute among the professionals.” Wow!

Conclusion. Hopefully, the adults in the room will recognize that improving safety is job one along Chapman Highway. If we were laying out a new road in a rural area, a broader swath of land could be taken to add future amenities, like those discussed – something for everyone. But here we are faced with a built-up corridor, lined with lots of businesses, and serving lots of traffic – some 40,000 cars a day once the Henley Bridge reopened. Taking business access rights and frontage would cost a bloody fortune (beyond any contemplated TDOT funding) and would probably force the closure of a number of existing businesses.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s OK to ask for more amenities. But hijacking available safe-road funds for social-engineering goals seems to cross the line. The TDOT road engineers, charged with improving and operating U.S. Highway 441, should be allowed to use the limited federal and state tax dollars to improve safety. Safety remains job No. 1.

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