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VOL. 42 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 20, 2018

Vietnam Veterans Blvd., SR-109 get overdue help

By Hollie Deese

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Rush-hour traffic headed northbound on 65N toward Vietnam Veterans Blvd. Exit 95.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

When Davidson County voters said ‘no’ by a 2-1 margin to a $5.2 billion transit plan, they also put on pause the groundwork that could lead to traffic relief for the nearly 30,000 Sumner County residents, 22,000 Wilson County motorists and other regional workers who commute to Davidson County for work.

Without Nashville taking those first steps, whether it is increasing bus service or adding light rail, regional efforts to tap into a Nashville system are unlikely to happen.

“I think all of the surrounding areas are probably on hold waiting for Nashville to have a plan, as transit to Nashville is pretty pointless if there isn’t an inner-city connector to get folks around,” Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown says. “I do think the conversation regarding transit will take a lot of twists and turns as technology evolves in coming years.

“By the time money is in place to fund something, I believe transit as we think of it today will be obsolete – and we’ll be considering very different alternatives.”

But, thanks to the IMPROVE Act, many road projects within counties – projects that don’t depend on Nashville’s decisions – are currently being completed in an effort to work through a backlog of roadwork that had been awaiting funding for completion.

Earlier this year Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer announced the state has awarded $297 million in contracts for crucial road and bridge construction projects – the first major awarding of IMPROVE Act projects and the largest such bidding process in TDOT’s history.

With increased transportation funds provided through the IMPROVE Act and TDOT’s federal budget, 72 new projects will be under construction across the state in the coming weeks. Within the first year of the IMPROVE Act’s implementation, 288 of the 962 projects designated in the legislation are underway, including the widening of US 431 in Robertson County and SR-109 in Wilson.

“We obviously have several projects north of Nashville, and we know this is an area of concern for a lot of folks because we’ve got a lot of people who travel in and around that area, and from that area into Nashville,” says Heather Jensen of the TDOT community relations department.

“We are doing just about everything we can so that commuters are having a fairly smooth commute and hoping to make things better in the next couple of years.

“Of course, a lot of these projects take time but help is on the way.”

SR-386 experiencing backups

SR 386, commonly referred to as Vietnam Veterans Boulevard, was originally proposed as a more convenient way for Hendersonville residents to get to Nashville, the northern suburb having boomed in the 60s and 70s.

Construction began on the first section of SR-386, between New Shackle Island Road and US 31E, in 1981 and was completed in 1983, and the connector to I-65N was completed in 1991. An extension east to Gallatin was completed by the end of 2007.

More than 66,000 cars per day travel on 386 at Center Point Road, 2016 TDOT research shows, an increase from 57,000 in 2012.

“Obviously, it’s increased, probably dramatically over the last several years,” Jensen acknowledges. “Just as the Nashville area’s grown and everything’s kind of branched out, and of course, people who have been there for years traveling back and forth to Nashville and other areas in Sumner County.”

Future plans for SR-386 include widening the highway to six lanes, with preliminary engineering work underway, Jensen says. The work that is currently happening on SR-386 is four miles of resurfacing with some epoxy overlay that should be completed by the end of the month.

“We’re working with a consultant to provide us some alternatives for that route - looking at the condition, looking at what needs to be improved and giving us some design alternatives to choose from,” Jensen adds. Plans for review should be ready by next summer.

As for plans to widen I-65N past 386, it will take time before that is realized.

“That’s one of those projects that we’re also doing some very early stages of development, looking at some preliminary engineering, and we’ve broken that down into several segments for I-65,” Jensen explains. “Long term we do want something to happen along that corridor. It just may not happen in the next couple of years.”

End in sight for 109?

One of the biggest projects happening north of Nashville is the last leg of SR-109, which needs to be widened through Wilson and Sumner Counties.

SR-109 connects several communities in Middle Tennessee to one another and to Nashville, and according to TDOT, traffic ranges from 10,000 to 25,000 vehicles per day, depending on the location of the route in Sumner and Wilson counties.

North of I-40 in Wilson County, it carried 24,846 cars per day in 2016, an increase from 21,428 in 2012.

The completed and proposed improvements are designed to increase capacity and improve safety and traffic operations along the entire route.

“We’re working on it furiously,” Jensen says. “This is a huge project, and very much on the radar of our commissioner. He knew that this corridor was just invaluable to that area. Not only in interstate traffic but also for the locals who travel that area every day.”

Completed and proposed improvements for SR-109, from I-65 in Sumner County to I-40 in Wilson County, include reconstruction and widening for nearly 35 miles of roadway. These improvements are intended to address congestion, improve safety and traffic operations, and accommodate growth along this rapidly developing corridor.

State Route 109 in Sumner County was completed on February 15, 1929. It begins at the Wilson County line terminating at the State Route 41/Robertson County line, a total distance of 23.45 miles.

The existing roadway is primarily two lanes. The completed projects and proposed designs will widen the existing roadway to a four- or five-lane stretch, including 12-foot travel lanes in each direction, with either a dedicated center turn lane or dividing median and paved shoulders. Lights will be added at key locations, such as Nichols Lane in Gallatin. All of this will help improve flow and safety.

Much of the project has already been completed, including from the Gallatin bypass north of Gallatin to SR 52 in Portland, from north of I-40 to south of SR 24 (US 70), the Gallatin bypass from Airport Road to Scotty Parker Road and the replacement bridge over the Cumberland River.

Still under construction is north of the Cumberland River Bridge to the Gallatin bypass south of Gallatin and seven miles of road from north of SR-24 to south of the Cumberland River Bridge. A new interchange is also currently under construction in Sumner and Robertson Counties, which will connect I-65 with a new alignment of 109.

“That has been such a huge concern because we’ve had so many Gallatin residents who have died on that road,” says Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown. “It has not been a safe road and it’s so heavily traveled now that just increased the risk. And so getting that done is going to be so positive for us.”

Jensen says the entire project will be complete by August 2019, spurred on by IMPROVE Act money.

“We’re making huge headway on a lot of the projects that we were going to have to sit on if nothing changed,” Jensen points out. “That project was initially supposed to be two projects from a funding standpoint. We were concerned we would not be able to fund the whole project from Cumberland River to US-70 at one time. But the IMPROVE Act helped us get that project as one full project and get it done now.”

Work continues in Portland

The population in Portland has increased about 20 percent since the 2000 census, and a large industrial park north of Portland has caused an increase in freight traffic, says Portland Mayor Ken Wilbur. That is a safety issue, he says, especially on narrow downtown roads that were built in the 70s.

Wilbur adds that 109 has seen an increase in freight traffic in addition to commuter cars, and some local freight from area industry growth, but a lot of it is freight just passing through town on its way to somewhere else.

“And every time we see a section of 109 completed, it just seems to pick up a bit more, of course,” Wilbur says.

Jensen says the Portland bypass will give people passing through better access to the interstate. Wilbur is concerned when the interchange opens up and the other end of 109 is completed, traffic is going to increase tremendously.

“We’re a small town and been used to just driving wherever you want to, whenever,” Wilbur points out. “The traffic on 109, you are starting to see backups. Not tremendously where it’s that big of an issue, it’s just an inconvenience to what we’re used to over the years.”

Development causing strain

Nashville’s struggle with affordable housing is also causing strains north of the city as well, and developers are struggling to keep up with demand as condos and apartments are being built fast and furious.

In Gallatin, 2,046 new multifamily dwellings have been permitted since 2015, with an additional 1,832 single-family dwellings permitted in the same time frame, with an additional 300 coming on line by the end of the year. Airport Road is currently under construction, with 1.5 miles being moved to accommodate the expansion of the Sumner Regional Airport, as well as resurfacing, widening and shoulder paving projects.

In Portland, a new Tractor Supply store is currently being built, and at the interchange a few new convenience centers and a Speedway store, are in the process of getting approval before construction begins.

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto notes the past five years have been a growth period for his county too, with a population that has grown to nearly 140,000 from 110,000 when he was elected in 2010.

“The increase is great,” Hutto acknowledges. “Our school growth increase has been tremendous. There’s a ton of houses and subdivisions going in. There are some condos and some subdivisions going in, and then there’s some regular homes out in the country, again that may have an acre or two acre lot yards, and so growth is really impacting the housing market for sure.”

That growth affects traffic, for commuters and within the county.

“We have some areas that need some attention, of course, with this growth,” Hutto explains. “There’s no question that we’ve got some other roads, like Highway 70 that leads out of 109 and goes into Mount Juliet on a two-mile stretch that has gotten a lot of conversation lately that needs to be addressed as soon as it can.

“But, I have other roads in similar areas within the cities and in the county that we would like to continue to work on and improve as traffic increases,’’ he adds. “So, we’re monitoring that and will add those to our list as time moves on. Transportation within the county, with the train here, has always been a focus of ours.”

Hamilton Springs in Wilson County is the first transit-oriented development in Tennessee, and Hutto adds other ones are being considered.

“We feel like we could capitalize somewhere down the line on other senior developments happening along the rail, so that when seniors lose their cars, they could still get to Nashville and do whatever they need to do and not have to drive,” Hutto continues. “So, we’ll look for more developments to happen along the rail as time goes on.”

But with Nashville’s transit plans on pause, Randall says the county will possibly look for a private company to help provide a bus loop or something similar so that people could do the reverse commute on the Star and get around, at least within Wilson County.

“It would be a positive for the train, for people in a reverse commute, and to get my people around town to the grocery store and to the doctor and to the hospital, as well as our visitors that come in to get around to the Providence Mall and the Ag Center,” Hutto adds.

“It would be kind of a win-win. And that’s something that we definitely have been working on and just trying to deal with through the private sector.”

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