Public comment sought on Gap Creek expansion

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   The Cherokee National Forest/Watauga Ranger District is seeking public comment on a proposed Tennessee Department of Transportation project to reconstruct Gap Creek Road, or State Highway 362.
   TDOT has mapped the expansion into three sections:
   * Section I consists of about 1 mile beginning near the existing intersection on State Route 361, extending north basically along the existing alignment to just south of Tester Road. The proposed roadway would consist of two 12-foot traffic lanes, 10-foot shoulders, and minimum 150-foot right of way. The highway, which is designed for a speed limit of 50 mph, is located inside Cherokee National Forest boundaries.
   * Section II would begin south of Tester Road and extend about three-tenths of a mile south of West G Street and would be sited in a new location just west of the existing Gap Creek Road. The roadway would stretch about 4.4 miles through open farm pastures, forested areas and scattered residential development. Road dimensions and speed limit are the same as proposed for Section I.
   * Section III would begin about three-tenths of a mile south of West G Street and extend to the end of the project at SR-67 and Elk Avenue (U.S. Highway 321). The roadway would stretch about four-tenths of a mile and cross existing Gap Creek Road just south of West G Street, parallel the east side of Linda Circle, cross West G just west of Gap Creek and tie to SR-67 and Elk Avenue about 2,100 feet east of the current intersection. This section would consist of two 12-foot traffic lanes, a 12-foot center turn lane, 10-foot shoulders, 2-foot curbs and gutters, and a minimum right-of-way width of 76 feet. Travel on this proposed section would be less than the previous two, with a 40 mph speed limit. Lights, bells and signs would be required at the East Tennessee Railroad crossing and West G Street.
   An estimated 5,700 to 12,980 vehicles per day are expected to travel the roadway in 2003, while an estimated 8,550 to 19,450 vehicles per day are projected by the year 2023.
   TDOT has contracted environmental assessment for the project, which requires studies to determine hydrological, ecological and cultural impacts as well as effect on air quality. Studies also will be conducted to evaluate noise impacts.
   On Gap Creek, three unnamed streams, some farm ponds or small man-made impoundments would be affected by the project and would require appropriate permitting and special consideration to ensure no adverse impact occurs.
   Studies will be conducted to determine the presence of any endangered or threatened species or unique wildlife habitat that could be affected by the project, as well as evaluation of impacts to wetlands.
   No National Register of Historic Places-listed properties or archaeological sites are known to exist within the proposed project corridor. However, Upper Gap Creek School near the beginning of the project, and a residence near the proposed crossing of existing Gap Creek Road may have some historical significance.
   Studies also will be done to assess project impacts on farmland or farmable land. A Farmland Impact Rating form has been sent to the Department of Agriculture for evaluation.
   The Environmental Assessment will contain two alternatives: No Action and Build Alternative. Under the No Action Alternative, the section would not be upgraded and only routine maintenance activities would be done on the route. The Build Alternative is divided into the three sections previously mentioned. When the Environment Assessment is complete, the Cherokee National Forest will review the document and decide whether to adopt it.
   Comments on the proposal, either verbally or written, must be received by March 11 and should be directed to: Vern Maddux, Cherokee National Forest, P.O. Box 400, Unicoi, TN 37692. Comments received by that date will be forwarded to TDOT's contractor to be considered in the environmental analysis process and also will be considered part of the public record and available for public inspection.