Blount County residents, business owners and elected officials packed the auditorium at Heritage High School late Tuesday with many opposed to the controversial Pellissippi Parkway Extension project.
The “in-person” meeting with officials from the Tennessee Department of Transportation has been in the works since June, when residents expressed frustrations with a virtual meeting held by TDOT to address public concerns with the long-delayed project.
The meeting began with a short video presentation, detailing the specifics of the project before TDOT officials opened the floor for an extended question-and-answer session.
Residents wearing red “STOP THE PELLISSIPPI PARKWAY EXTENSION” stickers wasted no time making their feelings known about the project and the way the process has been handled thus far.
“My general comment is one of dismay,” Blount County resident Kate Conley said. “We already submitted hundreds, if not thousands, of questions and comments in the virtual room and by mail. I personally called three times and got no response. So I’m wondering how transparent is this process?”
Conley’s comments were echoed by several speakers who took aim at TDOT for not answering questions from residents concerned about the project.
“We would love to be as transparent as possible,” TDOT Director of Project Development Dexter Justice said. “What we really want to hear is what you think about the project, and we will address those concerns within the project design.”
Justice’s attempt to steer the public toward design-centric comments resulted in a slew of questions regarding traffic congestion, environmental impact and rapid development.
“This design is a concept that’s more than 50 years old,” said resident Nina Gregg, a board member of Citizens Against Pellissippi Parkway Extension (CAPPE). “How can you help us imagine or prepare for a sustainable way of life for future generations instead of persisting with this outdated and shortsighted 20th century idea?”
When TDOT officials struggled to provide an answer to Gregg’s question, frustration in the crowd began to boil over as those opposed to the project began shouting questions and accusations of incompetence.
“What’s the point of this!” shouted one resident.
“The point is to get your input on the design,” Justice responded, eliciting laughter from many in the audience.
TDOT officials were able to get the meeting under control and continue with the Q&A session, but continued to get hammered by frustrated residents. However, TDOT was not the only organization in the crosshairs during Thursday’s meeting.
Blount Partnership, which has openly expressed support for the controversial project, received a public lashing from several speakers who believe the organization is the main entity pushing the highway extension.
“The only people that really want this in the county is the Blount Partnership,” resident and CAPPE President Jay Clark said. “They are the biggest driving force for the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.”
Outrage at Blount Partnership simmered throughout the meeting, coming to a head when Justice told the crowd that there are an “equal number of people who are passionate about wanting this project.”
The crowd immediately erupted in anger, with many people shouting “who?” and many more throwing out the name of Blount Partnership President and CEO Bryan Daniels.
“I just want to remind everyone that Blount Partnership is not an elected official and neither is Bryan Daniels,” resident Cat Griffith-Benson said to thunderous applause.
After the meeting, Daniels, who was in attendance, brushed off the criticism and stood firm in support of the project.
“Blaming us for a roadway — not sure I understand that. This is an overall project for the community that’s been in the works for a long time,” Daniels said. “We are on record supporting it. We would like to see it through. We think it’s good planning for the community.”
TDOT officials seemed to anticipate the public outcry and, following the meeting, expressed support and thanks to everyone who showed up.
“Any time you’re building a large project that’s going to impact a lot of folks, there’s a lot of passion on both sides,” TDOT Director and Assistant Chief Engineer of Region 1 Steven Borden said. “Public comment is extremely important to us.”
While the meeting was contentious and combative at times, it did seem to satisfy many in the crowd who opposed the project and wanted a chance to vent their frustrations.
“Other than wishing we had a little more time, I’m happy with the meeting,” Clark said.