Tennessee is pouring $3 billion into roads. Could part of it pay for Knoxville's bypass?

Highways through Knox County have some of the worst traffic in the entire state of Tennessee, and ideas have been swirling for year on how to fix it.

A $3 billion Tennessee transportation bill backed by Gov. Bill Lee offers some hope.

The Tennessee State Senate passed the plan and if the House votes for it March 27, the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s four regions would each receive $750 million for projects.

Knox News spoke with state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, chair of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee, to see how East Tennessee's cut of the money could be used to solve traffic issues for Knox County. It's a pressing issue since the county is expected to welcome about 79,000 new residents by 2040.

She helped explain how it all could play out.

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Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, chairs the Senate transportation and safety committee.
Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, chairs the Senate transportation and safety committee.

How much of that $750 million will go to Knox County?

Money from the bill will primarily focused on traffic congestion issues in the state, Massey told Knox News. Those are most prominent in urban areas of the state, of course, so funding will be funneled to places like Knoxville.

“In Knoxville, if we average that average daily traffic counts over a three-year period and throughout the state, we have 1,000 more cars a day than Nashville does,” Massey said.

Knoxville won't get all the funding, since TDOT's East Tennessee region includes 24 counties spanning from Morgan to Johnson County.

Through the bill, Knox County also will get an additional $8.28 million in state aid over and above the $750 million, according to Massey. That's more money to fix a quality of life issue for Knox County residents.

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How can the money be used for Knox County projects?

The exact roadway fixes are still under consideration, but Massey said Knox County has identified several traffic issues that need to be addressed, like reworking the Interstate 75 and I-640 interchange, a regular disruptor of traffic because of the number of commercial trucks that use it.

The bill includes proposed "choice lanes," an additional lane with less traffic because drivers have to would pay to use. Massey compared it to a Disneyland FastPass or a TSA PreCheck. Others call it a toll lane. Buses and emergency vehicles would be able to use it for free.

It's far different than toll roads in other states, where all drivers have to pay to pass through. Using a choice lane is optional. Massey said your choice to use one all depends on where you're going and how fast you need to get there.

“You have to look personally at what is your personal cost-benefit ratio and if it's worth it to you,” Massey said. “If you're an hourly employee, you can go on the free lanes and it takes you an hour to get there but, you can get to work in 15 minutes on the choice lines.”

Massey, a proponent of choice lanes, estimated it could decrease traffic by 30% in the free lanes and improve speeds by 20 mph.

Massey said she doesn't know specifically where choice lanes would go in Knox County, but they'd fit in the notoriously clogged 18-mile stretch where Interstates 40 and 75 overlap through Knoxville and Farragut.

Traffic is seen on Interstate 40, from Winston Road, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.
Traffic is seen on Interstate 40, from Winston Road, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.

Could the transportation bill fund a Knoxville bypass?

The short answer? Maybe.

After plans for a bypass (dubbed the "Orange Route") were axed in 2010 during the environmental study phase since experts said then it wouldn't divert enough traffic to justify a hefty $1 billion cost estimate.

The Orange Route would have connected I-75 in Anderson County near East Wolf Valley Road at the north end to the I-75/I-40 split in Loudon County at the southwest end.

But interest for a similar bypass has reemerged in recent months after officials learned Knox County was home to three of the top five highest-volume stretches in 2020. And things are only getting worse.

Right now, it’s no guarantee a bypass will ever become a reality. The Knox County Commission’s vote in January simply urged the state to study the feasibility of the project.

Massey said money couldn’t be allocated right now since the bypass is far from becoming a hard reality and therefore can't be identified as a priority by the county. A study on the feasibility of the bypass is needed first, then both the state and county would have to approve it.

More:Knoxville is home to Tennessee's busiest interstate stretch. Momentum builds for a bypass.

More:A Knoxville bypass was pricey back in 2010. How the $1 billion highway got axed

Massey said she’s been pushing for a bypass for almost three years, and she wants to make sure the state remembers it's a possibility. In the meantime, choice lanes could solve a good amount of congestion and change the need for a bypass, she said.

“I'm advocating for a study to look at (the bypass) and they can look at it in conjunction with a choice lane project and how that affects it,” Massey said. “But I have I will continue to see that that least look at that.”

Silas Sloan covers growth and development in East Tennessee for Knox News. He can be reached at silas.sloan@knoxnews.com. You can follow his work on Twitter @silasloan, or on Instagram @knox.growth. and sign up for the free, weekly Urban Knoxville newsletter.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee road bill could improve traffic problems in Knoxville