Railroad ties up I-640 repaving

Nick Della VolpeInside 640

Ever get the feeling you are riding down an old country road, as you rattle down I-640 these days? Eleven miles of potholes, make-shift crack repairs and fractured asphalt give your car the shimmy shakes.


Why is that? Repaving by TDOT contractors was scheduled to be completed over a year ago, but it has not started, let alone been completed. The repair contract has not been let, despite documented need. Next spring is the soonest TDOT projection. This road handles some 80,000 cars per day (in key segments) including traffic from interconnecting I-75 south as well as I-40 east and west.

Yet, periotic pothole patches are all we get, often only after accidents and blown-out tires have occurred. How long will your expensive shocks, ball joints and front-end alignment hold up? Not to mention your dentures.

You can thank the railroads in large part. CSX and Southern railroads have crossings above and below in several locations along this federal interstate highway (most notably under I-640 east of Broadway to Greenway, and both near/over Western Avenue). NOTE: There are no grade-level crossings where safety coordination is paramount. Thus far, the railroads have refused to grant TDOT permission to repave near their turf, citing arcane easement interference and possibly other rights complaints. That has delayed all work.

HUH? The work is simply milling and removing old asphalt and reprocessing it into a 3 or 4+ inch skin on the long-existing road surface. I-640 has been there since the late ’70s. It’s kinda late to bitch.

What ever happened to the people’s rights? Or the fair use of eminent domain? The normal legal solution is to buy or “take” whatever property is needed in the public interest and pay the bill. “Just compensation” is the only arguable harm to the railroad or any citizen’s rights under the constitution.

What gives? That’s a bit more complex. There has also been bureaucratic difficulty locating executed easement documents from the ’70s. Some of that falls on TDOT. The agency is obligated to certify proper title information to obtain federal funding, and internal changes to its own computer records have hindered that effort.

But it is still mostly technicality. Send out a surveyor and clean up the title paperwork – a few days work at best. The RR is not disposed to act quickly. Are there alternative motives, some as simple as bureaucracy, some financial?

Could it be the RRs hate competition from highway trucking and hope to slow it? Or are they indifferent to the needs of ordinary law-abiding citizens trying to get to school, work, shopping or travel? Will they (or anyone) repair our battered cars from the raggedy roads?

Related Example: Bridge Work Delay. Another example of seeming RR indifference to community car traffic issues is taking place on I-40 East. There have been daily narrowed bridge lane issues just across the Holston River, as needed repaving is underway. Lane closure hell snags rush hour traffic there twice daily. This is hazardous. Accidents occur when fast-moving vehicles meet stopped ones.

Did you know that TDOT had contracted for round-the-clock road repairs on that segment (at substantial increased contract cost) – only to be stymied, because the RR said they could only spare one flagger per 12-hour day? Really, a modest-waged flagger to let the road team know a train was passing below!

Solution. Back to the present. According to local TDOT officials, the railroads have superior rights under arcane laws from the 1800s. RR armed guards are purportedly able to stop work at gunpoint, and make arrests! WHAT? This is a federally-funded interstate road, operated and maintained by the state of Tennessee. And we can’t repave our failing road surface?

It’s time for state and federal lawmakers to get off their duffs and fix this snafu. Change whatever the offending law, as needed.

If that’s too slow, then the governor should post state troopers and/or the national guard along the road while this paving work is completed, and run off any intruding RR lackeys. The people are suffering for no just cause.

Damn the excuses. “Just get ’er done!”

Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer, a gardener and a former member of Knoxville City Council.

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