Elizabethton Connector construction at least two years away

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Tuesday evening, local residents got a peek at the path of the Elizabethton Connector -- the $28 million highway project envisioned to foster growth in the city that still remains two years away from construction.
   Citizens viewed the proposed route of the Elizabethan Connector at a public hearing held at the National Guard Armory in Elizabethton by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
   The Elizabethton Connector route presented Tuesday night portrays the highway beginning at State Route 67 (Elk Avenue) moving north across the Watauga River and running east to link up with U.S. Highway 19E.
   The section will include four traffic lanes and a continuous center lane. The entire length of the project is an estimated 3.9 miles. The Connector project once had three alternate routing plans near U.S. Highway 400.
   "The major challenger was moving around Highway 400 where we were trying to eliminate cutting into that real high bluff that is close to the river," said Hal Clemmons, TDOT civil engineering manager based in Knoxville. "The alternate route chosen circles the bluff and goes right along Lovers Lane."
   One alternate route planned to run north went through steep terrain while an alternate southern route was prohibitive because it would've forced the state to acquire several residences for right-of-way, said Clemmons.
   Right-of-way acquisitions will relocate 46 residences, eight businesses, and three non-profit organizations including the existing Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter, according to the TDOT study of the project.
   "The next meeting after this will be the right-of-way meeting," Clemmons said. "At this point we will explain to all the property owners that we will hire two separate independent appraisers from the local area to do all the appraisals, and someone from the state will review each appraisal and select the appraisal they deem appropriate and make the monetary offer for that property."
   The property owner can either accept or reject the state's offer of compensation for his or her property. If rejected, the right-of-way appraisal acquisition is taken to local court.
   Right-of-way property acquisition is expected to begin next summer with construction not slated to start until the fall or winter of 2004.
   Costs for right-of-way acquisitions are projected at $6.5 million with $1.6 million budgeted for preliminary engineering. Actual construction costs are estimated at $18.5 million.
   Funding to purchase the right-of-ways necessary to construct the project had been appropriated by the state Legislature, said Clemmons. However, funding for construction of the highway had not been appropriated, he said.
   An important point since Tennessee will have a new governor after the November 5 state election.
   According to TDOT study, the Connector should divert over 13,000 vehicles per day from West Elk Avenue when construction is completed.
   Without the Connector, daily vehicle traffic on West Elk is expected to increase to 49,300 vehicles per day, according to TDOT traffic estimates.
   The hearing drew dozens of local residents curious to see where the five-lane interstate was going. Citizens the Star spoke to said they endorsed the highway's construction.
   "I think it is wonderful, and I think it is long past due," said Molly Hayes of Elizabethton. "I think the good far outweighs the bad."
   Hayes said her family owned property at the far east end of the Connector, but the highway should only clip two to three feet of the property's driveway. She said the diversion of traffic that crushed West Elk Avenue would be a major plus of the project.
   John Crowe of Elizabethton who also said he owned property along the highway's route felt the highway would increase property values and generate new commercial growth for the city.
   "That will make it a real help to Elizabethton," said Crowe.
   The highway will be taking several residences and a handful of businesses to construct the highway.
   "I think it will help everybody in the long run, even though there will be people upset about it," said Rick Baker of Elizabethton. "Transportation is what determines how much growth you've got."
   Baker said he and his family "had property straddled through the whole thing" and would be one of several residences taken by state right-of-way acquisition.
   Donna Ward owns two mobile homes off Lovers Lane. While she doesn't own the property the homes sit on, the connector's route takes one the homes but leaves the other. She said she had no idea where she could move the homes at this point.
   "The slope for the one I live in now is going to have a off-ramp right behind it," she said. "It's just up in the air right now."
   Citizens may submit written statements and other exhibits about the Elizabethton Connector to Projects Comments, Tennessee Department of Transportation, Suite 700, James K. Polk Building, 505 Deaderick St., Nashville TN 37243.