Paving the Way for Economic Prosperity in Union County

SR 61 and Walkers Ford

Improvements to State Route 33 and State Route 61 in Union County were a popular topic at the Republican Rally on 2 June in Wilson Park. Several candidates for Commission and Mayor cited the need for these improvements. Representative Dennis Powers confirmed that construction for the SR 33 and SR 61 improvements were included in the 2017 IMPROVE Act, Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads, and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy, introduced by Governor Bill Haslam to the 109th Tennessee General Assembly. In the first year of the IMPROVE Act’s implementation, 288 – 30 percent – of the 962 projects designated in the legislation are under way and TDOT anticipates project bids to increase by about $100 million later in 2018. Funding for the SR 33 and SR 61 projects are not on the TDOT three year plan and were not included in the 2019-21 Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Multimodal Program. The Tennessee Department of Transportation budget for fiscal year 2019 revealed that there is uncertainty surrounding the 47 percent of the department’s budget that comes from federal funding which puts the 962 projects listed in the IMPROVE Act in jeopardy.

Improvements to SR 33 and SR 61 are needed. Traffic history shows a steady increase in average annual daily traffic count with an average of over 12,000 cars daily traveling SR 33 from the Knox County Line to Maynardville and almost 4,000 daily on SR 61 East from Maynardville to the Grainger County Line inclusive of the Walker Ford connector near the SR 33 intersection. According to Tennessee's Integrated Traffic Analysis Network (TITAN) Fatal Crash Locations, three fatal crashes have occurred in the last 15 months on SR 33 from the Knox County Line to Maynardville, 81 accidents have occurred on this same stretch of highway, 30 involving injury, from 10 October 2015 to present, and during this same period 86 accidents occurred on SR 61 East from Maynardville to the Grainger County Line, 20 involving injury. According to TDOT, 11 fatalities occurred on SR 33 from Maynardville to Tazewell, most in Union County, in 2003 and 2004. The construction of Paulette Elementary School on SR 33 from the Knox County Line to Maynardville has created an additional hazard for commuters, parents and children. According to TRIP, a National Transportation Research Group, the fatality rate on Tennessee’s non-interstate rural roads in 2015 was more than two and a half times greater than on all other roads in the state.

State Law, TCA § 54- 5-102, calls for all county seats to be connected by a four-lane highway to the nearest interstate highway by the best route available and the Commissioner of Transportation is to receive financial aid for their construction. The region’s industries and commercial businesses require adequate transportation facilities to operate at their peak potential with SR 33 and SR 61 serving as a major link to the economic hub of Knoxville and the converging interstate system in Knox County. SR 33 and SR 61 provide the most direct link for Union and Claiborne County residents to travel to jobs in the Knoxville area. The 30th Annual Survey of Corporate Executives conducted in 2016 found highway accessibility ranked the number two site selection factor behind only the availability of skilled labor, and an enhanced regional transportation system to attract new commercial and industrial employers would be expected to provide new jobs for Union County residents.

Economic investment is needed in Union County. Union County is one of only 6 counties in the state of Tennessee to not have a jobs announcement under the 8 years of economic expansion fostered by policies of the Haslam Administration. Union County is one of only three counties in the state of Tennessee where the school system and county government are the number one and two employers. Union County has only 13% of residents who both work and live in the same city compared to the Tennessee average of 57% of people who both work and live in the same city. The mean travel time to work is 34.1 minutes and 1.51% of the workforce in Union County have "super commutes" in excess of 90 minutes. According to the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, Union County is experiencing population decline that began in 2011, a marked reversal of the 30% population growth rate observed from 1990 to 2000, and without intervention the population decline is expected to extend beyond 2040. Union County is experiencing out-migration, mainly among 20 – 29 year olds. Union County’s negative population growth and out-migration brings with it severe negative economic consequences including fewer workers available to businesses, fewer customers to buy their goods and services, and a shrinking tax base, all resulting in a severe impact on the finances of government.

Transportation infrastructure improvements are vital to Union County. An efficient, safe and well-maintained transportation system provides economic and social benefits by affording individuals access to employment, housing, healthcare, education, goods and services, recreation, entertainment, family, and social activities. It also provides businesses access to suppliers, markets and employees, all critical to a business’ level of productivity and ability to expand. With an economy based largely on manufacturing, agriculture, natural resource extraction and tourism, the quality of our transportation system plays a vital role in the county and state’s economic growth and quality of life.

The need for improvements in SR 33 and SR 61, based upon both public safety and economic intervention in Union County, should be a priority for Tennessee as economic expansion and job growth outside the county is exacerbating the economic conditions in the county and without support from the Governor, the Commissioners’ of Transportation and Economic and Community Development, and Union Counties elected state representatives it could now be up to 14 years or more before these projects are completed.

A resolution is going to be presented before the County Commission at the 11 June meeting by 1st District Commissioner Stan Dail to recognize that one of the single most important state investments in Union County to bring jobs and prosperity is an adequate transportation system as it directly correlates to economic viability and vitality and the improvement of the SR 33 and SR 61 corridor is fundamental to our economic future. The resolution will call for a reassessment by state officials as to the importance and timing of the SR 33 and SR 61 projects and individuals in the county are encouraged to attend the meeting and show their support.

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