Connector report expected soon

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A report due to the Tennessee Department of Transportation within the next week that explains the importance of archaeological sites found along the Northern Connector corridor will give a clearer picture of when construction of the $28 million highway project will begin.
   Transportation Department officials are awaiting a report from Alexander Archaeology Consultants expected on or before June 15. The report evaluates the scope of European and Native American artifacts unearthed along the connector's corridor during the project's engineering phase.
   In a letter sent to state Rep. Jerome Cochran, R-Elizabethton, last week, a TDOT official said that the archaeological discoveries are complex and include "several thousands of years of Native American and Euro-American settlement in the Watauga River Valley".
   The Alexander Company did the original survey to identify archaeological sites and the company has performed two seasons of testing to evaluate the significance of the sites possibly affected by the project. Archaeologists working on the highway project reported discovering historical artifacts during assessments in May 2003. Artifacts discovered included chipped stone tools like "arrowheads," scrapers/knives/drills, flakes of flint, and broken pottery.
   TDOT's Douglas J. Delaney writes that part of the highway project was redesigned, necessitating additional fieldwork, which was delayed by inclement weather. He said that the connector's assessment was "complicated" given the complex and fragile nature of the sites.
   Delaney writes: "Although it may appear to local citizens that no work is being done on the project, in actuality the archaeological laboratory processing analyses and report writing are making good progress."
   Based on the discovery, the Transportation Department's most recent schedule did not expect right-of-way property acquisitions along the connector's corridor to occur until early 2005 with construction slated to begin sometime in 2007.
   Transportation officials are completing the final National Environmental Policy Act environmental documents pertaining to the connector. A TDOT official said last month that no burial ground or isolated burials have been encountered by archaeologists.
   The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) must provide the state Historic Preservation Officer and federally recognized Native American tribes the opportunity to review and comment on the report. If no alternative can be found to avoid the sites, the FHWA must consult with tribes to form a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) stipulating that measures will be taken to mitigate the project's impact on the sites. Delaney writes that it is likely "several reviews and consultation sessions will be necessary" to finalize the MOA.
   TDOT anticipates the MOA will be executed this fall. The FHWA could then authorize right-of-way acquisition for the project.
   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.
   Funded under the federal transportation bill, the Northern Connector has a proposed budget of $28.8 million. The 3.9-mile connector begins at State Route 67 (West Elk Avenue) west of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2166, moves north across the Watauga River, then runs east, linking up with U.S. Highway 19E and the State Route 91 interchange. The section will include four traffic lanes and a continuous center lane.
   The highway project also includes replacement of the Bristol Bridge at Lynn Avenue. City of Elizabethton officials have lobbied the state since the project's inception to construct a new bridge from the connector to the Cherokee Industrial Park.