Could new road options save the unending congestion in our beloved Sevier County?
Over the years, many travelers have gladly paid for the privilege of driving the toll road to Disney World in Florida. Ditto on travels through the mountains of West Virginia to places like the Snowshoe ski resort. For those states, it makes sense—sort of like a house mortgage or vehicle financing. Like many other states that have also adopted this means of road construction, Florida and West Virginia have chosen to have a toll road sooner rather than later and to require their out-of-state users to help retire the debt. Easy access to their attractions benefits the bottom line of local businesses and especially does so for states like Florida, which, like Tennessee, have no income tax and rely almost entirely on sales tax collections to underwrite governmental operations.
Our most recent governors were quick to recognize and promote the tourist industry as perhaps the most lucrative investment for a state which places a premium on low taxes. Memphis has tourism and so do Chattanooga and Nashville, but no city in the state relies more on its vacationers than Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg in Sevier County. Since 2015, the extension of Veteran’s Boulevard (better known as the main access road to Dollywood) to State Route 66 at the Wilderness development has been the top priority for the Sevier Transportation Planning Board, an official body consisting of all the mayors and city managers in the county. Their elected officials in the Senate and the House of Representatives are fully on board. Consensus like that among local leaders is rare in any community.
Visitors who must travel through downtown Sevierville and negotiate their way through the unrelenting congestion along Dolly Parton Parkway are frustrated by the lack of response—so far—from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). Sevierville’s city manager, Russell Treadway, describes the corridor named for its favorite country music star as “a major concern, operating with poor levels of service and unmanageable amounts of traffic.” Mayor Robbie Fox illustrates the point with current data: “In October of 2022—as compared to 2021, which was a bumper year in tourism—the number of vehicles on Highway 66 near Smoky Mountain Knifeworks increased to 1,924,226—over 62,000 per day as compared to some 58,000 in October of the prior year!” Even though the cities and the county have agreed to pay all engineering costs for the design of the extension and to underwrite the purchase prices for necessary land acquisition, little or no progress has taken place during the first term of Governor Bill Lee of Franklin, who has promised to make roads a priority in his last four years in office.
In fairness, Tennessee faces an annual shortfall of between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion each year as the necessary expenses for roads are no longer supported by its revenue from gas taxes. As more electric vehicles travel the roads, the gap will widen. Studies by TDOT and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations have pointed out the problem. The question, of course, is the solution.
As the second leading sales tax collector in the state in 2021, Sevier County, which was number one in collections during COVID 2020, is a major contributor to the state’s annual budget, sending an estimated $350 million to state coffers for 2022. Its growth continues at exponential levels. When it comes to state roads, Sevier County needs relief.
If those in power believe the state cannot afford the recent $100 million estimate for construction from Veteran’s Boulevard just to the Wilderness properties on Highway 66 or the $200 million more for an extension to a new I-40 exit, there is a lawful alternative. In 2007, the legislature passed the Tennessee Tollway Act, a statute designed to allow TDOT to explore tolling as an option for new highway and bridge construction. In response to the legislation, TDOT studied the issue. Stipulations for consideration at that time were as follows: (1) the toll must be for new construction; (2) there must be alternative routes available without a toll; (3) there must be public support; (4) local elected officials must be supportive; (5) a project must be in the state’s Long Range Transportation Plan; and (6) management of the project, as financed by the issuance of state bonds, must be by TDOT’s commissioner.
With these conditions, established so many years ago, TDOT considered a 9.9-mile roadway from I-40 terminating at Dolly Parton Parkway at its intersection with Veterans Boulevard. While the statutory criteria were met, TDOT backed away because of the high costs. Obviously, costs have not gone down since then, but visitation to Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg have skyrocketed. Of major significance, last year Dollywood, still going and growing as ever, had over 3 million guests. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the nation’s most visited by far, posted a record high at over 14 million visitors in 2021 with even more when the official count comes in for 2022—great for the local economy but a serious overload for a park designed for a 1934 population. Local officials estimate increases in those numbers for both in this year.
Recently, the Governor announced plans to add a toll lane in and around Nashville and perhaps other overly congested areas. In theory, only drivers who have paid for the privilege can access the speed lane. For the large cities, that might help, but not so for travelers in Sevier County. Through Sevierville—in particular, the existing developments along Highway 66, the 441 Parkway, and the 411 Dolly Parton Parkway—the addition of a toll lane would provide no relief. Costs would be prohibitive. The number of traffic lights alone would make that option impractical.
Years ago, those in Knoxville often took day trips to the Smokies, stopping along the way at popular eating places like the Apple Tree Inn, Trotters, and Green Valley in Pigeon Forge and Ogle’s Buffet, Brass Lantern, and the Open Hearth in Gatlinburg. Now, many who live in this area find other things to do, resorting to a memorable quote of the New York Yankees’ Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
Long ago, Tennessee adopted a “pay as you go” policy for its Department of Transportation. That means that the state will not borrow dollars to build roads. Most in the state’s House and Senate are aware of the need to address traffic issues but also oppose any increase in the gas tax. The result is deadlock. Some have argued that toll roads, which do require an increase in the state debt, are unconstitutional. That is simply not so. Courts in New York, Virginia, and Missouri have confirmed the constitutionality of toll statutes like that in Tennessee. Toll roads depend on user fees, not taxes. Even conservative states like Texas have chosen to make use of tolls to underwrite essential road construction.
If a “toll lane” is not feasible in Sevier County, a toll road is. The development now under construction by the Eastern Band of the Cherokees at Interstate-40 Exit 407 and the other planned growth at that intersection means that the 120 gas pumps at Buc-ee’s Travel Center will be working full-time. Congestion on 66 will be a mess. Let’s hope that the leadership in our state can ensure that travelers in these parts have somewhere to drive rather than just sitting in a traffic jam.