A highway that potentially could bring 7,000 new jobs into the region between Chattanooga and Asheville, N.C., has been approved for study, Tennessee Department of Transportation officials said Friday.
Wes Hughen, TDOT’s Corridor K project manager, said Commissioner Gerald Nicely approved conducting a transportation planning report and a new environmental impact statement for U.S. Highway 64, or Corridor K.
Mr. Hughen said once the transportation report is complete, new road alignments will be offered, possibly north and south of the existing road that runs through the scenic Ocoee River Gorge.
“There would be a minimum of four (road alignments),” Mr. Hughen said. “You have to have some choices.”
He said he did not know when the transportation report would be completed. TDOT has asked for proposals from 17 engineering firms, he said.
Widening of U.S. Highway 64 has been debated since it was listed as an economic development corridor in 1965 by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Proponents say road improvements would bring economic prosperity to the isolated region. Opponents say changes would damage the environment, cost billions of dollars and destroy artifacts.
An environmental study completed in 2003 by TDOT estimated the cost at $1.5 billion to $2.3 billion. TDOT officials say the study is outdated and a new one is needed.
At a Corridor K Steering Committee meeting Friday, Knoxville-based consultant Wilbur Smith Associates released the final draft of an economic development study it began in 2007.
Consultant Melissa Ziegler said the study showed thousands of jobs would be created within five years after a new or widened road is complete. The jobs would bring in more than $210 million in new personal income, she said.
The largest number of jobs would come with environmental science research, call centers, data-processing centers and medicinal and botanical manufacturing, the study said.
Ms. Ziegler said if the road remains as it is, jobs would be lost, mostly in the textile industry.
“It would be any business that moves goods or people,” she said.
The study also said more highway connections between Southeast Tennessee and western North Carolina would ease access to eastern seaports in Norfolk, Va.; Wilmington, N.C.; and Charleston, S.C.
Several environmental groups have called for improving the existing road, but Ms. Ziegler said Friday that’s not possible. TDOT already has made many improvements, placing more guardrails and trying to cut through rock along several dangerous curves, she said.
“They’ve made all the improvements they could possibly make,” she said.
During the meeting, several steering committee members asked whether an 80 percent match the federal government has promised toward building the road could be spent elsewhere. Several hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside for the project, officials said.
Kenneth Wester, Appalachian Development Highway System program manager, said the money would “continue to build and sit there.”
Leigh McClure, field representative for U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said her boss would fight for the money if the U.S. Congess tried to take it.
“I don’t think there’s a chance it’s going anywhere,” she said.
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...