Note: This story was last updated at 12:30 p.m.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation has canceled proposed changes meant to improve safety on Clinton Highway between Edgemoor Road and the Knox County line. The proposed safety improvements in Claxton have been canceled due to opposition from Anderson County, and after residents objected, including in a petition.
TDOT presented its proposal during a July 7 meeting at the Claxton Community Center. Among other changes, the project would have reduced the four-lane highway to a three-lane roadway with a passing lane in one direction, wider shoulders, and a continuous center turn lane as part of a resurfacing project scheduled for next year.
TDOT said there have been 10 fatal crashes in 10 years on that 2.6-mile section of Clinton Highway between Edgemoor Road and the Anderson County-Knox County line.
“That’s pretty high in a small section of roadway,” Nathan Vatter, TDOT regional traffic engineer, said after the July presentation. “It’s a significant number of fatalities.”
There was another meeting this month to give comments to TDOT. Anderson County Commissioner Tracy Wandell, one of two county commissioners who represent Claxton, provided notes to TDOT. Among the highlights:
- There have been 1,388 signatures collected opposing the proposed changes.
- Anderson County Commission passed a recent resolution opposing the proposed changes.
Steve Borden, TDOT Region 1 director and assistant chief engineer, said the Clinton Highway resurfacing project had been modified in an attempt to address safety and operational issues.
“The department feels that the plan would have addressed immediate safety concerns while accommodating traffic volumes now and in the near future,” Borden said in an August 23 letter to Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank.
But “now that Anderson County has officially opposed the plan, the department will not move forward with these changes,” Borden said.
It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday morning if the resurfacing would still happen.
Residents who opposed the project had characterized the proposed center turn lanes as “suicide lanes,” a concern raised by Anderson County Commissioner Theresa Scott during the July meeting. Opponents of the center turn lanes said drivers would use them to pass. A few who wanted other changes also proposed a stoplight at Mehaffey Road, which is near the beginning of a short hilly, curvy section of Clinton Highway as you toward Knoxville.
The proposed stoplight at Mehaffey Road was included in Wandell’s notes to TDOT. So was a request to consider straightening an area known as Beck’s Curve, and use current funding to repave and widen the curve and add the red light.
Also proposed, according to Wandell’s notes: a guardrail from Lonesome Dove Road to Ciderville.
Borden said TDOT will continue its studies of the possible traffic signals on the highway and conduct a feasibility study for improving Beck’s Curve. But the proposal for major “geometric improvements” would not be a safety project and would be a new start, Borden said in his letter to Frank.
“It would most likely be years before implementation,” Borden said.
Also, TDOT cannot transfer dollars from its resurfacing program funds to other projects, he said.
“We will provide a high-level cost estimate, but this project would need to be prioritized with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization,” Borden said, referring to the proposed geometric improvements.
There is an October 20 meeting scheduled with TDOT, although it’s not clear if that will still be required.
Anderson County Commissioner Steve Mead, who represents part of Oak Ridge, said he had warned about this outcome at a recent meeting.
“Demands for changes that would not qualify as ‘maintenance’ combined with general rejection of the initial plan, appears to have resulted in the whole project just being canceled,” Mead said Wednesday. “We should have focused on agreement to repaving, but pushed to have the lane painting/designation retain four lanes and retain/provide left and right turning lanes to the extent ‘maintenance’ funding would allow. That was the consensus at the last meeting.
“The need for a new traffic signal and major work at Beck’s bend/curve should have been kept as separate requests.”
Frank said TDOT will continue with its efforts to study certain sections of the road.
“We look to work with them in the future and hopefully come up with ideas that have community support,” she said Wednesday.
The roadway shoulders in the 2.6-mile section of highway are limited in areas, the speed limit is 50 mph, and there are several spots with no buffers—no median or center turn lane—between traffic traveling north and south, meaning vehicles zoom past each other around curves while moving in opposite directions.
In addition to the fatal crashes, there have been 11 crashes with incapacitating injuries, 87 other injuries, and 252 total crashes.
During the July meeting, TDOT outlined another alternative meant to help reduce fatal and injury-causing crashes, and improve safety and access to the highway. That other proposal was to widen Clinton Highway to five lanes, including a center turn lane, with shoulders.
But that project could cost about $30 million, take 15 years, and require the state to acquire right-of-ways, Vatter said. And funding that five-lane project will be difficult, Borden said. It’s also not feasible based on traffic volumes, TDOT said.
TDOT said the proposed center turn lane in the middle of the three-lane highway, the alternative TDOT proposed in July, would provide a buffer between vehicles traveling in opposite directions, reduce rear-end collisions, and set up a “safe refuge” for turning traffic. Adding a center turn lane can reduce crashes by 37 percent, Borden said.
There would also have been seven-foot paved shoulders, which would help emergency and disabled vehicles, provide a “recovery area” for cars that stray off the road, and help mail carriers and right-turning traffic, TDOT said. Adding paved shoulders can reduce crashes where vehicles leave the road, known as “roadway departures,” by up to 47 percent, depending upon the shoulder width, the department said.
“If we’re able to do that now, we’re talking about saving lives,” Borden said of the proposed center turn lane and seven-foot shoulders.
The five-lane widening and other improvements could still be done later, Borden said.
Under the modified three-lane proposal, the passing lane would sometimes have been in the northbound lanes and sometimes in the southbound lanes.
Under that proposal, there would have been a one-third mile section of roadway between Mehaffey Road/Strader Road and Lonesome Dove Road that would have been three lanes—one lane in each direction with a center turn lane. There would have been no passing lanes there. There have been bad crashes in that area, Vatter said.
Other concerns raised during the rollout of the plan this summer were whether some Anderson County officials, including Road Superintendent Gary Long and Claxton commissioners Wandell and Chuck Fritts, had been adequately informed of the TDOT proposal before it was presented to the public in July. WYSH Radio in Clinton reported that some residents and property owners said the proposed project would make the road less safe, create more traffic congestion, and possibly affect local businesses.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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