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‘Unprecedented’ meeting held on Kingston traffic backups

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By The Staff

By TERRI LIKENS

tlikens@roanecounty.com

Easy interstate access and lakefront living are the kind of things some communities only dream of.

But for Kingston, these realities also have contributed to a problem that recently prompted an unprecedented meeting with state officials.

An area choked between the waterfront and Interstate 40 is feeling another squeeze — a serious bottleneck on Hwy. 70 between the Clinch River bridge and the Kentucky Street intersection.

Traffic counts have been under way in the area, and Terry Gladden, the transportation manager for Tennessee Department of Transportation, acknowledged the problem.

Major contributors include frequent accidents on I-40 that close lanes and send motorists looking for alternative routes

“We’ve got the numbers, and we know, for a two-lane, they’re pretty high,” Gladden said.

Kingston officials have an answer —  four-laning the stretch.

Not so fast, state officials cautioned.

“It’s certainly a unique situation from a mobility standpoint,” said consultant Scott Niesen of Ragan-Smith Associates of Nashville. The firm has been retained by TDOT officials to assess the problem and help find solutions.

“There is a reason this is the first time TDOT has come to a city to talk incident management,” Niesen said.

Several dozen people crowded into a room in the Kingston Community Center to hear the discussion and offer input.

They included TDOT officials and their consultants, a state highway patrol officer, city officials, local emergency service officials, school officials and even wrecker drivers.

A wrecker driver in the audience said emergency authorities’ system of calling ambulances by rotation — instead of by who is nearer — can extend the time it takes to clear an accident that may send traffic through Kingston.

Other contributing factors are school traffic that hits at once.

Roane County Schools Director Toni McGriff noted how difficult it is even to ease school buses into the traffic when it is backed up.

“Those big yellow dogs take up some space,” she said.

McGriff also responded to discussion of delaying school dismissals in the event of heavy traffic.

“You might delay the buses,” she said. “But you can’t delay the 500 parents sitting in their cars.”

State officials and their consultants said no money is available for four-laning for now, so other measures will be looked at to relieve the problem more immediately.

City officials have already taken one step — issuing hand-held remotes to control traffic lights when backups occur.

When officials asked how long it typically takes from beginning to end to get a road widened, the audience gasped at the answer — 15 years.

“We’re willing to do what we can do,” Kingston Mayor Troy Beets promised TDOT officials. “You all have expertise we don’t have. We just shoot and miss and shoot again.”

“We’re out of bullets,” said Kingston Councilman Don White, who chairs the city’s transportation committee.

Consultants from Ragan-Smith will continue to seek input on the problem.

“We want to hear anything and everything you’ve got to say,” Niemen said.

In particular, consultants are interested in the impact of traffic on area businesses, safety and emergency response.

They also want to know about the frequency of backups, where choke points occur and when backups are most likely to happen.

Niemen made it clear from the start that the consulting firm wasn’t there to provide immediate answers.

“We’re not coming here with a bunch of solutions from afar,” he said. “We’re all ears today.”