By Zachary Harmuth
When the original venue looked obviously unable to handle the turnout for his scheduled Tuesday night forum on the future (or lack thereof) of the Mack Hatcher western extension, state representative Jeremy Durham opted to upgrade to the substantially larger Pearre Creek Elementary School gymnasium.
His smart planning and decision-making averted a possible mess where most attendees would have stood backed up in a line trying to get in well after the 7 p.m. Q & A ended at 8:30 p.m.
Even so, the bleachers filled up and impromptu rows of chairs had to be put out and still some late arrivals were left standing.
Unfortunately for many residents in his constituency, which covers west Franklin and southwestern Williamson county, Durham’s skills cannot also fix the traffic jam they encounter every day–the extension of Mack Hatcher from Hillsboro Road to Highway 96 continues to not exist.
Durham organized the meeting so that the public could hear from the horse’s mouth why exactly the project was not in TDOT’s $1.5 billion 80-project three-year plan for 2014-2016, and what the status of the extension is.
The public, at least in the Westhaven area, felt strongly enough about it to write in “Mack Hatcher” on 22 percent of its ballots in the recent uncontested Ward 4 Alderman race.
Durham heeded the call of his constituents, and their horns.
So he put together a panel with (former Franklin mayor and) TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, State Senator Jack Johnson (whose constituency overlaps with Durham’s), State House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Sargent and TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges to answer to the people they serve face to face.
Schroer did almost all the speaking.
He took the floor a little after 7 p.m. and spoke for almost 45 minutes about the background and current status of the project. Then, for the rest of the time, he took written questions, mostly variations of “when will TDOT build the extension?” to which he repeatedly refused to an answer.
The budget for all state-funded road projects, such as Mack Hatcher, is $170 million in 2014. The original extension plan designed by Franklin in 2008 had a $80 million price tag. A revised plan cost $45.2 million, but Schoer said TDOT could not justify even that much on Mack Hatcher, according to its system of deciding funding.
He said that subjectively, given where he lives and his history with Franklin, he wants the extension as much as anyone, but as Commissioner he must guide TDOT to undertake projects on an objective basis.
His TDOT follows a descending list of priorities to decide which projects to spend its limited capital on.
The most important priority is safety.
“Most of the money goes to roads people die on,” he said. “Most of the 1,018 driver fatalities in 2012 were not from the road being bad, but we want zero to be caused by the road.”
Congestion comes next, and, he said, traffic studies show that without the extension the traffic is bad but not terrible.
Economic development is considered next, and, Schoer said, the residential zoning along the extension would bring very little.
It will create one time jobs, he said, but little to no permanent economic growth or employment.
He indicated that the cheaper the project could get the sooner it might get funding.
“The idea is to get the road built, period,” he said.
A Two-Lane Alternate plan, for $22.7 million, basically builds half the extension- with the other, parallel, half to be built later.
Construction, and the cost, would be over two years, bringing the TDOT budget hit down to $11.35 million annually.
This is similar to the soon-completed construction on the existing Mack Hatcher.
The project, begun in the 1980s, planned to ring around Franklin; today only the eastern half is completed. In 2005 TDOT announced the exact route the western 7.5 mile part should follow, and asked Franklin to design the northwest 3.2-mile quarter-circle from Hillsboro to 96, which gained approval in 2008. TDOT then gave approval for Franklin to purchase the necessary properties along the route’s right-of-way which it completed in early 2011, bringing Franklin’s total input to $5 million.
Over the years, as Williamson County experienced an explosion of development in and outside the proposed ring, Mack Hatcher has sat half finished.