Vote on road to new school could come tonight

J. H. Osborne • Jun 26, 2018 at 1:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to hold a special called meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss and potentially vote on a proposed new road to the county’s new West Ridge High School. It is a public meeting and will be on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

The topic has generated controversy for several months, and action on a resolution related to the road has been deferred repeatedly.

Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri, who leaves office at the end of August, first tackled the issue of getting a new road to the new school more than a year ago. Earlier this year, County Commissioner Sherry Grubb introduced a resolution that has since languished. It originally sought to authorize Belgeri to spend up to $300,000 to hire an outside firm to engineer a road to the school from Highway 357 (on the west side of Interstate 81). Belgeri has estimated the road could be constructed for $3 million, from the Sullivan County Highway Department’s fund balance, and distributed a rough outline of the road’s potential path from Highway 357 to the school site on Lynn Road.

There have been attempts by some commissioners to amend the resolution to include $3.3 million in order to pay for the engineering work and the construction. Others have said they will only support the resolution if a definite route for the new road is included, and some say the rough outline from Belgeri is not the route they want.

An earlier called meeting to talk about the road was canceled, and another brought county and school officials together to play the blame game. Each side pointed fingers at the other for allowing the school to get this far — land selected and purchased, bonds issued to fund its construction, and site preparation underway — without a solid plan for making the site easier, and safer, to access.

A secondary argument: Which section of the taxpayers’ pocketbook should fund the road — the county general fund, the highway fund, the school department’s general fund or some combination of those accounts?

Another factor in the whole debate is opposition to the new school itself.

Last week, Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable provided county commissioners with drawings of other potential routes drafted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Venable sought TDOT’s input.

And Venable has since sought additional information from TDOT. 

An email from TDOT to Venable includes the following details about the state agency’s initial review of the project:

• “In reviewing the existing roadways and options for the new roadways we found ... using the existing roadways Browder to Lynn is not recommended due to the existing roadway widths along with horizontal and vertical curves.”

• “The use of Shipley to Lynn Roadway is adequate based on roadway geometry, however, some traffic issues may arise especially at key turns from SR-357 to Shipley Ferry ramps. In the morning there would likely be problems with an uncontrolled left turn from SR-357 onto Shipley Ferry and this may result in queuing onto SR-357. In the afternoon additional issues may result in the opposite direction as traffic attempts to re-enter SR-357 from Shipley Ferry.”

• “There are basically (two) options that we identified for consideration for new roadway construction, it should be noted that Option 1 is similar to Route C which was developed by (Belgeri)”.

•  TDOT has met with Waste Management and with Second Harvest to discuss their business and traffic flows in this area.

• TDOT also spoke with Belgeri, and he discussed that “the county was investigating additional improvements like signalization at SR-357 with Jericho Drive and additional measures at Jericho with the school entrance.”

• “There are likely pros and cons for all (three) concepts and also further study for environmental and survey work before construction plans could be completed. ... Costs for each option are very comparable and will depend on the final plans and details for construction.”