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

New life for I-840 north? Is it needed, wanted?

By Hollie Deese

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When Republican gubernatorial candidate Diane Black recently proposed completing the northern loop of Interstate 840 as part of her transit solution to ease traffic and congestion issues, she promised quick construction and no new taxes for the expansion that could help with traffic by sending trucks around Nashville instead of through it.

Knoxville-area Republican candidate Randy Boyd has also expressed a willingness to invest in expanding 840 through rural counties north of Nashville as a way to ease traffic in the city.

It’s the revival of an idea that has been on a permanent hold for 15 years after being proposed first in 1975 when the Tennessee Department of Transportation identified the need for an outer beltway around Nashville within the 20 years to help meet the needs of then-increasing traffic in Middle Tennessee.

The project was placed on the 1986-1987 budget after the 1986 Road Program passed the legislature, and the first contract for construction was signed in 1991.

Shortly after, TDOT was authorized to begin studying the impact of a northern loop that was to connect Interstate 40 with a route running from Dickson through Clarksville, Springfield and Gallatin before connecting to Interstate 40 again near Lebanon.

Three possible routes were proposed in 1995, ranging from 86 to 116 miles and $500 million to $1 billion.

While TDOT noted it would improve safety and traffic issues, the construction of the loop could also displace businesses, increase urban sprawl by reducing farm land and negatively impact floodplains and streams.

“It would hurt our county in a lot of ways, too,” Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown says of Sumner County if a northern loop of 840 is revived.

“Even though it would be really nice to circumvent traffic, it would probably really damage some of our great rural areas.

“And so, we kind of have to be concerned about that.”

In 2003, then-Gov. Bredesen and then-TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely placed the northern loop on indefinite hold, even though the state had already spent nearly $3 million on studies related to the northern loop.

In fact, Mayor Brown thought the 840 loop was so far off the table it was not ever going to be considered again. Heather Jensen in the Community Relations Division of TDOT agrees, despite campaign promises.

“We do not plan any kind of northern extension for 840,” Jensen says. “There were just too many challenges for that roadway, and even if we were to revisit it and think about doing it again, we’re talking about more than $2 billion dollars to make that road happen.

“That’s the whole reason that we’ve done all these improvements, not only in 109, but in 65 and 24 and just anything around that area that’s going to keep people from traveling north of our state, because we know that pretty much 840 is just not feasible.”

The southern loop of the 840 corridor was finally finished in 2012 when Gov. Bill Haslam opened the last two portions of the 78-mile road from Pinewood Road to Columbia Pike.

The completed southern loop of 840 provides access to Interstate 40 west and east of Nashville, along with connections to Interstates 24 and 65 through Dickson, Hickman, Rutherford, Williamson and Wilson Counties.

The final cost was $753 million, more than twice the $351 million projected in 1986.

The project was constructed entirely with state transportation funds.

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto says that the drama with the construction of 840 was well before his time – he was elected in 2010 – but he has had to deal with the aftermath of the decision to not construct the northern loop when proposed.

“There’s been a need for it ever since they completed 840 coming from the south,” Hutto adds. “The 840 loop now just kind of dumps out at I-40, and if you want to go north, you’ve got to go 109.

That has put a strain on the narrow and dangerous road that is currently under construction and set to be widened from two to five lanes by the end of 2019.

TDOT received approval in 2016 from the Federal Highway Administration to designate State Route 840 as Interstate 840, a change meant to stimulate more economic growth along the corridor while also diverting traffic from Nashville with the faster speeds interstates offer. The cost to replace signs on state routes and interstates was $230,000.

Still, with gubernatorial candidates bringing up the 840 northern loop again, Brown would not be surprised if it is revived, despite her misgivings that it could bring the kind of unchecked development and large-scale industry she’d like to keep to a minimum in Gallatin.

“I don’t want a 1,000-person employer because of the traffic, but I also don’t want it because the risk associated with it if they shutter,” she points out.

“It penalizes our existing workforce, and all the projections show a long-term shortfall in the projected number of needed employees. There’s risk with attracting it, but then there’s risk of cannibalizing your workforce and, ultimately, when they shutter in 10 or 20 years, you’ve got 1,000 people out of work.

“If you’ve got 50 businesses that each employ 100 people, if one of them closes it’s not going to devastate half your community.”

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