For now, there’s talk of an Ocoee River Bypass…

For now, there’s talk of an Ocoee River road left largely unharmed as big trucks move to a parallel track, either north or south of the gorge, completing East Tennessee’s stretch of Corridor K by 2013

By Tom Bennett
Special to the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

Benton, Tenn., July 21, 2009 – The presidency of James K. Polk in 1845-49 was a time of westward expansion, adding Texas and parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Now the county that is named for Polk here in East Tennessee is trying for some expansion of its own, seeking to be the locale for one of the last unfinished stretches of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Corridor K developmental highway.

This latest try to get it built either above or below the landmark Ocoee River gorge here in Polk County entails, at least for now, what has the makings of a change in the hearts and minds of Tennessee manufacturers. Time will tell if it really is genuine, or if what is being said is just the sort of rhetoric you hear early on in a developmental project. I’m talking about the agreeable period of non-confrontation during the start-up when citizens are invested by the authorities as stakeholders. The volunteers’ desires for protection of the land and water turn up in the agencies’ show-and-tell, and citizen advocates appear to be getting through to the manufacturers, contractors, local governments, economic development directors and chambers of commerce who are so desirous of the road. I hope that’s the case.

Six years ago, Tennesseans seemed so determined to get their goods out faster to east coast ports, and in the process skirting Atlanta or Knoxville, that their state DOT wrote a draft EIS of Corridor K east to North Carolina that was nothing less than an engineering Goliath.

That Sept. 2003 draft called for four four-lane tunnels and 30 bridges through the Ocoee gorge, according to Rick Gehrke’s 2007 case study for his master’s thesis at the University of Tennessee. (The latter is the best overview available on the Internet, since the document itself has been taken off the web and is now only a Tennessee highway artifact and nothing more.)

“We don’t want Earth First! to determine this route,” U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga told the Polk County News. “Outsiders brought in from Timbuktu” are not going to stop it, he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. (Wamp has since declared he is a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor.)

Well, road politics are nothing if not varied. Today’s public workshop here at Polk County High to evaluate work so far by URS Corp. of San Francisco on a Transportation Planning Report showed how attitudes have changed.

“The tunnels and bridges are gone,” said Wesley Hughen, Tennessee DOT’s project manager. “We’ve scrapped them and we’re starting over.”

Sort of like NASA’s blind reliance on the computer “Hal” in Stanley Kubrick’s motion picture “2001, a Space Odyssey,” Quantm is being employed by TDOT and URS Corp. to do a better job than people at calculating road paths through the Blue Ridge. This software has drawn five swathes across Polk County that you can see on the Internet soon – if TDOT Nashville ever gets them posted in graphics clear and understandable. Here they are:

A blue, purple and mauve line goes south of the Gorge and crosses Ocoee Lake. An orange line tracks north of the gorge from Parksville Lake campground and then somehow along the steep southern edge of Little Frog Wilderness. Finally, a gold line makes a big loop north to Archville and then in a sweeping dogleg right, completely around the Little Frog Wilderness. (The mileage in this route – perhaps 15 to 20 in all – would be the most by far, and that could make it the choice of the winning mountaintop-removal mining bidder that would dynamite out granite from a nearby peak to make the roadbed.)

All of the routes begin west of the gorge at the Ocoee River Bridge. All end in the east at the intersection of U.S. 64 and Tennessee 68. For now this bucolic junction in rural east Tennessee has a sign directing you to the nearby museum of the Burra Burra copper mine; a BP station; and a Hardee’s, which is going to sell a lot of roast beef sandwiches to truckers one of these days if it can just stay in business.

In this latest go-round in Corridor K, a highway talked about for 45 years, the National Environmental Protection Act deadlines are July 2012 for a draft EIS; June 2013 for a final EIS; and Nov. 2013 for a “record of decision.” That latter would be the final step after the state of Tennessee and its governor and DOT had cleared massive federal and state hurdles. Not the least of them would be the signature of the president of the United States on a federal law permitting a four-lane highway through the Cherokee National Forest.

THE ASPECT OF this current road drive that stops you in your tracks is one that at least is being talked up in undocumented meetings of a “citizen resource team,” which is a key part of TDOT reforms.

Yes, there are three years to go before a draft EIS is due, and yes, what the well-meaning citizen stakeholders say in early stages can disintegrate later when political realities come into play. But for now, there is lots of talk of doing only “spot improvements” for greater safety in the two-laner through the gorge. Then it would continue its role since the 1970s as what the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association calls the way to get to “the premier place in the world for whitewater competition.”

In this perfect realm, the slalom whitewater and kayak rodeo enthusiasts would keep the river and road to themselves. No longer would they have to deal with the marauding tractor-trailers that are barreling east to the port of Charleston — along a perilous winding road that in 2004-06 had 263 total crashes. Instead, the trucks with their goods would be moved to one of the multi-colored paths. And which one would be best?

STATING YOU OWN HEREFORDS ISN’T PROTECTED SPEECH
Denny Mobbs of Polk County was telling me how he is 67 years old; a trial lawyer; and the owner of a 125-acre farm at the Ocoee River Bridge where he raises polled Hereford cattle. I started to write that down and he said, “That’s off the record.”

I countered by saying that in all his years in the law, he must have formed an appreciation for the freedom of press and speech clauses in the First Amendment, and he is aware it’s alright for one American to write it down when another says, for example, that he owns polled Herefords.

“Well, then, you can write anything about me that you want,” he replied. So I will.

In addition to being a lawyer and a former county attorney, he is a mountaineer who, after climbing peaks here, made 11 trips to the Alps. There he scaled, among others, the Eiger in Switzerland; the Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border; and Mont Blanc on the French-Italian border.

Denny Mobbs has pressed hard for Corridor K. He is a tanned, taut and intense person who seems to frame every conversation as if he is at the jury box in a closing argument to save a client from the gas chamber. So I spoke gingerly as I asked, “Do you have land that you would like to sell to TDOT for right of way?”

“I have no financial interest in this project whatsoever,” Mobbs told me.

Instead, he described a lifelong obsession with the danger of the gorge road. He and his wife (they are childless) live on the west side and she taught Humanities for years at Cooper Basin High School on the east side in Ducktown. There came a time when she had an illness and every day for 33 school days, after she was finished with her classes at 2 p.m., she had to drive the gorge to get to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. So safety is the reason that her husband says he wants to see completion of the four-lane highway, and certainly not along the perilous route down there along the river.

A PROJECT MANAGER PLEADS FOR MORE DISCLOSURE ON HIS STATE’S WEB SITE
During today’s workshop, a lonely lady sat at a transcription machine in a corner ready to take our comments. Here are those of one citizen, one paid-up taxpayer who resides in retirement in the Blue Ridge Mountains:

“The graphics you’re showing today are naïve. They lack the TVA Apalachia Reservoir; the L&N Copper Basin rail line; and the cities of Reliance and Etowah. I need all these to be able to better understand the orange, gold, and purple, blue and mauve lines.

“Secondly, good chat, scuttlebutt and rumor coming out of the Citizen Resource Team (there are 15 members from Polk County and impacted groups such as Benton MacKaye Trail Association) needs to be in minutes and on the TDOT project web site. What happens is, all that gets told and re-told until it’s hearsay you don’t want to repeat because you don’t know if it’s true. If you will collect minutes and post them, one day you will be glad you did; and

“Locate Kimsey Mountain Road on graphics. Three years ago this historic dirt path of the Cherokee was talked about by Denny Mobbs as the best route for Corridor K. Now it’s not even on URS Corp. of San Francisco’s QUANTM study-area map, and good for that, yet it needs to be just so I can put everything in perspective.”

Well, Project Manager Wesley Hughen happens to be urging TDOT’s webmaster to get posted a variety of Corridor K data, including Citizen Resource Team minutes that DO exist, Hughen told Holly DeMuth, executive director of WaysSouth.

“He wants all of that to get posted on the site, and for them to remove the paragraph that says they’re ‘in the process of selecting a consultant to perform the Transportation Planning Report,’ which is really out of date, because they have that consultant, and it’s represented here today,” Demuth said.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer and winner of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. E-mail him at farblumtn07@gmail.com