The traffic wall in the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s control room tracks the flow of cars through Nashville’s interstate system. On any given business day during rush hour, the vehicles on Interstate 440 create a mass of red — red outlines on smartphone maps indicating congestion, red faces of frustrated commuters and a sea of red taillights on the crosstown loop.
For the past 26 years, Nashvillians have had a love-hate relationship with I-440. When commuters aren’t crawling down I-440 before and after work, the road’s condition becomes apparent. On one particular stretch near Nolensville Pike, drivers have the option between a bumpy ride on the left side of the road or cruising an uneven surface in the right lane.
According to the most recent TDOT data, more than 100,000 vehicles travel the road on a daily basis. Despite a contentious past, a bumpy present and a yet-to-be determined future, I-440 continues to play a vital role in Nashville’s commute.
The pre-planning for I-440 began in 1955, when original proposals for a crosstown connector in Nashville were formed. The city of Nashville council approved the general locations of the interstate highway system, and I-440 was originally proposed as “Route 516.” A public meeting was held in 1957, which identified planned inner and outer loops around the city.
Over the next decade, the state of Tennessee was authorized to make land acquisitions related to the stretch of I-440 between Interstate 65 and Interstate 40. The state reached a deal with the Tennessee Central Railroad to acquire a major portion of the right-of-way in 1968.
Before construction on the first portion of I-440 began, the state of Tennessee contended that the project fell under federal guidelines for exemption from preparing an Environmental Impact Study. A lawsuit filed by the National Wildlife Federation, however, forced an extensive EIS to be completed.
Community meetings and workshops between TDOT and the Metropolitan Planning Commission were held in the 1970s. Traffic impact studies at the time determined that secondary roads would be congested beyond their capacity without I-440.
But the community wasn’t on board. According to a judge’s opinion in the 1980 case of Nashvillians against I-440 vs. Lewis, et al, most community members recognized a traffic problem, but didn’t like the I-440 solution.
Among the alternative proposals: making Woodmont Boulevard and Woodlawn Drive one-way streets, building a downtown bypass closer to the Williamson County line, or the omnipresent suggestion of adding more public transportation options like buses and rail.
Despite public opposition, the project moved forward. There was controversy in 1980 when Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton asked for a delay of the project. He later withdrew his request, citing confusion about the process.
When Nashvillians Against I-440 filed their lawsuit in 1980, they leaned on the mayor’s confusion as a way to delay the project. They also contended that the project ran afoul of multiple federal laws, like the Historic Preservation Act and the Air Quality Protection Act. There were concerns about the effect on historic properties in the Belmont/Hillsboro neighborhood and the effect of traffic emissions on the environment.
But federal judge L. Clure Morton dismissed the lawsuit.
“When governmental agencies, individual citizens, or groups of citizens made suggestions or voiced concerns regarding consideration of alternatives, noise levels, air quality, historic properties, and various other factors, the responsible officials listened and responded appropriately,” Morton wrote in the final opinion.
“The system has worked.”
The construction of I-440 moved forward with some caveats to appease neighbors and citizens. TDOT scrapped original design plans and instead decided to carve part of the highway down into the rock.
When the dust settled after the construction, the total price tag for I-440 was $163 million. That figure includes preliminary engineering and purchasing right-of-way in addition to construction costs. At the time, it was the most expensive road built in Tennessee.
“Ultimately, the deal that was cut was a depressed roadway. You’ll notice how 440 was cut down into the rock,” TDOT chief engineer Paul Degges said. “You think about all those rock cuts down there. Typically, it’s expensive to cut rock and haul it off somewhere. So, the cost of the project went up.”
Degges worked on the crews that constructed sound walls on the new highway.
“Part of the emphasis of the project was to relieve some of the pressures on downtown Nashville and to keep Nashville proper from being a choke point for traffic volumes,” Degges said.
During the first year that I-440 was fully open, traffic on I-40 dropped by about 16 percent, according to TDOT data.
Another key choice made by TDOT during the I-440 construction was the use of concrete rather than asphalt. Currently, about 98 percent of Tennessee’s roads are asphalt, Degges said. But concrete is often a more durable choice for urban areas.
“[I-440] has about 100,000 cars a day going down it. You’re going to get roughly an eight-year life out of that road [with asphalt],” Degges said. “When you put concrete down, you can typically go 20-something years and get a good life out of it. Then, you come in and do some joint work.”
That’s where I-440 is now. TDOT has invested more than $33 million in maintenance and upkeep since the road opened 26 years ago. Most recently, the state invested nearly $9 million for road improvements in 2009.
But Degges is blunt — I-440 is operating on borrowed time.
“One of the things we’ve seen across the United States is that traffic growth grew beyond our projections,” Degges said. “We opened [I-440] in 1987. We’re beyond the design life for it.”
And constant construction and widening isn’t going to solve all the
“One thing that we know is you can’t build your way out of congestion. We can’t just continue to widen the interstates in Tennessee to solve our congestion issues,” Degges said. “Today, we spend the bulk of our money maintaining and operating the systems.”
Part of that solution is an increased emphasis on Intelligent Transportation Systems, a variety of tools that TDOT uses to make the roads more efficient.
“We’ve got cameras and speed sensors and message boards. I’m trying to increase the efficiency,” Degges said. “If somebody breaks down in a lane on 440, that lane has zero percent efficiency. If I can get a help truck out there, get that vehicle out of the way, I can open that back up and have a more efficient operating system.”
A current TDOT project is working to add some capacity for problematic areas near the Nolensville Pike exit — and that construction will include concrete repairs on the bumpy patches.
But questions still remain for the future of the I-440 corridor. Degges said his team of engineers is already working on a “major rehabilitation project” for the roadway. The status quo can’t remain the same.
The Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization master plan for 2035 calls for a major widening of I-40 West in between I-440 and I-65, a move that could relieve some congestion. According to the MPO’s traffic projections, I-440 will see an 11 percent increase in traffic in 2035.
But the MPO is counting on alternative forms of transportation to solve the problems.
“Improvements to sidewalks and bicycle lanes on adjacent routes will provide better connectivity at the local level to foster walkable communities, which can curtail the sprawling development pattern that has led to long vehicle trips,” MPO executive director Michael Skipper said in a statement.
Some commuters may use I-440 for short trips — like to go from West End Avenue to Hillsboro Pike and Green Hills. Providing more public transportation options could help cut down on the I-440 traffic.
The MPO also projects that State Route 840, which provides a loop from I-40 in Wilson County to I-40 in Dickson County, could help with I-440 freight traffic.
In the mean time, TDOT is conducting extensive studies on I-440 exits at Hillsboro Pike, West End Avenue and Murphy Road.
And while traffic snarls can be unpleasant, it’s one of the signs of a booming city.
“We have been blessed with prosperous times,” Degges said. “When the economy does good, we see traffic.”
Steve Napodano has first-hand experience with potholes. In addition to working on cars for 24 years, Napodano was once thrown from his motorcycle when it hit a hole on the highway. The road intrusion caused damage to both of his wheels.
“I’ve seen [potholes] do some pretty good damage. I’ve seen them break transmissions. I’ve seen it crack the transmission case, it hit so hard,” Napodano said. “Some of these new cars sit so low to the ground, or if people modify them and they sit low to the ground, you can tear up any of the components in the steering and you can lose control of the vehicle.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card revealed that 38 percent of roads in Tennessee are in poor or mediocre condition. Interstate 440, which is notorious for potholes and bumps in certain areas, is past its design life.
Napodano, the education supervisor for Lincoln Technical Institute (formerly Nashville Auto Diesel College) said rough roads and potholes can easily cause thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs. The broken transmission case — which Napodano said is rare, but can happen — could cost $2,000 minimum to replace.
Napodano recommends that commuters keep up with regularly scheduled maintenance, especially if rough roads are driven on a daily basis.
“If you ever look in a service manual, you’ll see normal condition and harsh conditions. And if you’re driving on something really bad all the time, it will accelerate the wear on all of your suspension components,” Napodano said.
The ASCE report card gave Tennessee roads a grade of B-minus, which was better than the D-minus national average. The report said Tennessee’s roads were well-maintained, but rapid growth and inadequate funding could cause trouble in the future.