Archaeology report on Connector corridor expected next month

By Thomas Wilson

An archaeology report assessing the amount of colonial and American Indian artifacts unearthed along the Northern Connector corridor could determine when construction will begin on the $28 million highway project in Elizabethton.
   State Rep. Jerome Cochran said last week the state Transportation Department officials were awaiting findings from Alexander Archaeology Consultants regarding artifacts discovered in the Northern Connector corridor during the project's engineering phase.
   Archaeologists working on the highway project reported discovering historical artifacts during assessments in May of 2003. Artifacts discovered included chipped stone tools like "arrowheads," scrapers/knives/drills, chert flakes, and broken pottery.
   The scope of the artifacts discovered could delay construction on the 3.9-mile road project at least one year, according to Transportation Department reports released earlier this year.
   Kim Keelor, public information officer with Tennessee Department of Transportation, said this week that that no burial ground nor isolated burials have been encountered by archaeologists. The state has been involved in an archaeological assessment of the Northern Connector project for several years, she said.
   Based on the discovery of the artifacts, the Transportation Department's most recent schedule did not expect right-of-way property acquisitions along the connector's corridor to occur until 2005 with construction slated to begin sometime in 2007 -- a discouraging delay met with chagrin from local and state government officials.
   Keelor said when transportation officials receive the report from Alexander, the Federal Highway Administration would begin consulting with the federally recognized tribes that attach potential cultural and religious significance to the area. The result of the consultation will be a plan devised to avoid and mitigate the adverse effects of the project on the archaeological sites.
   The connector's budget includes $6.5 million for right-of-way property acquisitions and $1.6 million for preliminary engineering. Actual construction costs for the connector are estimated at $18.5 million. Right-of-way acquisitions expect to relocate 46 residences, eight businesses, and three non-profit organizations, including the existing Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter, according to a TDOT study of the project.
   The Alexander company did the original survey to identify archaeological sites and have subsequently done two seasons of testing to evaluate the significance of the sites that may be affected by the project. Keelor said archaeologists have discovered prehistoric sites on both sides of the Watauga River, representing several thousand years of Native American settlement.
   TDOT said this week company representatives planned to submit a report detailing the results of their investigations, analysis of artifacts, and recommendations for further work in early June.
   Federally funded through the Transportation bill, the Northern Connector has a proposed budget of $28.8 million. The 3.9-mile connector begins at State Route 67 (Elk Avenue) west of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2166, moves north across the Watauga River, then runs east, linking up with the U.S. Highway 19E and State Route 91 interchange. The section will include four traffic lanes and continuous center lane.
   The highway project also includes replacement of the Bristol Bridge at Lynn Avenue. City officials have lobbied the state since the project's inception to construct a new bridge from the Connector to the Cherokee Industrial Park.