Editor’s Note: Census data show Northeast Tennessee’s population growing faster than it has in years since the COVID-19 pandemic changed migration patterns. Housing permits are being pulled at record levels. News Channel 11 is spending this year looking at the growth’s impact from every angle.
WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — They stepped to the podium at Johnson City Commission chambers months apart and they live miles from each other, but Ron Hines and Kim Jamerson both expressed a persistent question as the area grows: what about the traffic?
Hines spoke in March 2022 as the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission mulled a proposal to add nearly 150 apartments just off of Brown’s Mill Road near his single-family residential subdivision.
“When we left Chickasaw (Street) tonight, we waited for 13 cars to pass before we could pull out on Browns Mill at 5:34 p.m. … so I please want you to consider the traffic,” Hines told commissioners. He was one of more than a half-dozen neighbors to express similar concerns.
Eight months later, Jamerson trooped to the same microphone as the commission considered an annexation request in Gray that would pave the way for nearly 500 homes on 133 acres near Ridgeview K-8 and Daniel Boone High schools.
The proposed “Keebler Farm” subdivision would abut Sam Jenkins Road, a narrow county road that already handles traffic from a couple hundred homes and Ridgeview School. Jamerson said getting past the school on Sam Jenkins during school opening and dismissal hours had been nearly impossible due to parents’ cars blocking the through road.
“They’ve just figured a system out to try to get them out of the road, but adding more traffic to that adds a huge problem,” Jamerson said. She too, was joined by a chorus of neighbors voicing similar concerns.
The developer planning apartments near Hines backed out of that project. The Keebler project, with some modifications since Jamerson expressed her concerns in November, appears headed toward a final vote in May.
One of the area’s top traffic engineers told News Channel 11 perception and reality don’t always match up when it comes to roads and traffic. But with new housing developments popping up along roadways across the Tri-Cities, the kinds of concerns expressed by Jamerson and Hines are becoming more and more commonplace.
Keep it flowing
In Johnson City and Jonesborough, developers are moving on new homes and apartment complexes — some along busy state highways, some on city roads and some in spots where city, state and county roads all come into the mix.
The growth has put city planners and government leaders in a tricky position: How do you manage the influx of new developments and residents with safe, reliable traffic flow?
Johnson City’s Traffic Engineering Manager Anthony Todd said the city can plan out until 2050 on its metropolitan transportation plan, but newer developments require much shorter planning timeframes.
“Some areas we can get out in front of it,” Todd said, a panel of large video screens in the background showing some of the city’s major traffic spots. “But a lot of times you do have to play catch-up.”
Playing catch-up becomes more common when areas experience faster-than-projected growth — something that’s been happening regionally for about three years. As new developments come into fruition along existing roads, Todd said residents can expect changes to those roads to improve traffic flow and safety.
Indian Ridge Road winds past a mix of pastures, wooded hillsides and subdivisions from U.S. 11-E between Jonesborough and Johnson City to North State of Franklin near Woodland Elementary. With more growth already under way in a particularly winding spot with a large amount of acreage graded and ready for homes, the city is planning some major changes to accommodate the increased traffic.
“There’s going to be a development on Indian Ridge Road in an S-curve that’s very tight,” Todd said. “There, we’re going to be building a roundabout to address some of those issues. It was already an area that was a little bit of a problem, so we’ve got to have some solutions.”
For Todd, every development is different. Some traffic calming measures like roundabouts, red lights and extra lanes will not work on some roads, but will on others.
One thing Todd can see is that rural outer reaches of Johnson City have been a popular landing spot for new housing.
Many of those projects sit off state highways, which are under the control of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).
“We’re focused on what it is that we need to do to get out in front of those to the best that we can,” Todd said. “Some things you can’t do a whole lot until the development is a reality. As they present plans, then we can put some of the plans together.”
But improving TDOT’s roads can be a waiting game.
Washington County, Tennessee Mayor Joe Grandy said the county has met with TDOT’s commissioner to discuss improvements to Boones Creek Road, which is part of a state highway.
A mix of housing developments are springing up on Boones Creek just outside Jonesborough. Grandy said he wants improvements to the road to improve access to Interstate 26 at Exit 17.
“It’s very important that Boones Creek Road get the improvements it needs to move people between Interstate 26 and Jonesborough,” Grandy said. “I believe we’re going to see a really nice project come out that soon.”
But Grandy said it could be a timely process working out those improvements with TDOT.
“That’s a big organization and they have limited funds,” Grandy said. “It just takes a long time to make the roads change to the place where it’s going to be able to handle a ton more transportation.”
Another area under TDOT’s watch is Highway 75 in Gray — near Kim Jamerson’s home — where Johnson City Commissioners will soon vote on bringing the Keebler Annexation into the city.
Longtime Gray resident Danny Sells has property adjoining the subdivision land and said he is concerned about Highway 75’s capacity to handle such a large influx of people.
Sells said it is already difficult to enter onto Highway 75 from the side roads, particularly with the two nearby schools.
“Do we have to wait until something really bad happens before we do something or do we get ourselves together?” Sells said.
But Todd said a driver’s perception of traffic is often relative.
“If you’re expecting a large amount of traffic because you came from an area that had a large amount of traffic, it’s not as big of an issue to you as it is a person that’s not used to a lot of traffic,” Todd said. “Any increase might be significant to them.”
The potential for traffic issues is on the minds of developers who want to keep the peace as much as possible with existing residents.
“We understand that this is another intrusion,” Keebler developer Danny Karst of Land Star Partners told News Channel 11.
He’s made some changes to the roads within the proposed development, and said he wants to fast-track two red light projects through private investment. One would be at Sam Jenkins and 75, where Jamerson said current area residents often endure long waits to get onto the highway.
“We’re hoping to do $50,000 to help assist in getting that red light moved to the front,” Karst said. “Offering private money to help assist in getting it done for everybody in Gray, not just here.”
In cases like the Keebler Annexation, Todd said solving traffic problems often takes a multi-jurisdictional approach.
“You just have to put your heads together and work out a solution together,” Todd said. “Sometimes it can be as many as four because you have the developer, the county, the city and the state all involved.”
Todd said his department will continue monitoring traffic flow to determine which changes are necessary.