Archaeology report on connector faces state, federal review

By Thomas Wilson

   Tennessee Department of Transportation officials are not making public an archaeological study detailing historical finds along the Northern Connector corridor for fear would-be Indiana Jones types might seek out the European and American Indian artifacts listed in the report.
   Travis Brickey, public information officer for TDOT in Knoxville, said on Wednesday that the department had received the initial report last month. He said the study had not been released publicly due to "confidentiality issues" contained in the report pertaining to colonial and American Indian artifacts discovered by project engineers.
   "We are very concerned and want to keep the sites as natural as possible," said Brickey.
   The Alexander Company conducted the survey to identify archaeological sites to evaluate the significance of the sites possibly affected by the project. Archaeologists discovered artifacts including chipped stone tools like arrowheads, scrapers/knives/drills, flakes of flint, and broken pottery while surveying the highway's corridor in May 2003. The discoveries effectively stopped development of the highway project late last year.
   Brickey said the department would review the initial report for accuracy and if necessary re-submit it to the consultant firm for revisions. Once the revised report is returned to TDOT, the study faces reviews by cultural agencies at the state and federal levels.
   State Rep. Jerome Cochran said a TDOT official told him and Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, on Wednesday the archaeological report had been completed and would be forwarded to the state's Historic Preservation Society. If that agency approves the report, it will be sent to the federal Indian Tribal Commission for review.
   Both agencies normally have 30 days to review the study, Brickey said.
   Cochran said the transportation official he spoke with indicated an American Indian burial ground was discovered within the corridor. He also said barring further delays, the project should resume this year.
   "Once approval is gained then the federal government will allow work to resume," he said. "It is our hope that all of this will be completed by late summer or early fall and then land acquisition can begin."
   The $28 million northern connector project extends five miles beginning on West Elk Avenue near the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #2166 to the U.S. Highway 19E and State Route 91 intersection. The highway will cross the Watauga River and include the construction of at least two bridges, including the Bristol Bridge at Lynn Avenue. Construction on the connector project was expected to begin this year.
   Brickey said the archaeological firm identified "multiple sites" in the report, but did not specify an exact number of finds. He said a full environmental impact statement on the corridor would include the archaeological report but exclude "sensitive" site locations.
   "We are hoping to have an agreement sometime in the fall," Brickey said. "It is a process, it's just a slow process."
   Cochran, R-Elizabethton, said development of the Gap Creek Road, or Southern Connector, expansion had actually moved ahead of the Northern Connector due to the delay. Engineering work on the Southern Connector is nearly completed, according to TDOT. Land appraisal of 52 properties affected by the project is expected to begin next month. Cochran said property acquisition for the Gap Creek Road expansion could start in September.
   The 5.8-mile Gap Creek Road expansion extends from State Route 361 to State Route 67, and reconstructs the roadway to widen traffic lanes and include a turning lane at some points. Total project cost is $13 million.
   Transportation department officials have also pushed back the completion date of the State Route 91 highway expansion until late fall. Bid at $11.5 million, TDOT officials targeted the Stoney Creek highway for completion in June.
   "TDOT is anticipating that the project will be fully completed by November," said Cochran, "and the residents of Stoney Creek will no longer be seeing the decorative orange barrels along the road."
   Extending 5.8 miles from Maury Price Road to Panhandle Road, the project opens a five-lane highway including a turning lane through the Hunter and lower Stoney Creek communities.