Any given day — and particularly during morning and afternoon rush hours — Interstate 440 bustles with vehicles transporting people and products. The interstate segment, which spans a geographically limited seven miles and snakes a mere two miles from downtown Nashville’s inner-interstate loop, is a key thoroughfare for motorists bypassing downtown to access the popular Hillsboro-West End and Green Hills districts. Connecting to Interstates 24, 40 and 65, I-440 is both practical and popular.
But its quarter century hasn’t come without concerns, changes and challenges. Many citizens originally opposed building the interstate, concerned about its negative effects on the surrounding natural environment as well as the fact that a mass transit alternative was not considered.
The first segment of what was then called Four-forty Parkway opened to vehicles in 1986. From that defining moment in Tennessee transportation history, I-440 has ranked among the state’s busiest stretches of roadway. It’s undergone more modifications, debates, opposition and eventual acceptance than perhaps any other government project in Davidson County. Players in its evolution stretch back to former mayor Richard Fulton, ex-governor Lamar Alexander and countless community activists.
Oddly enough, many of its former foes have come to accept the interstate.
“I guess we can take pride that it’s among the best interstate segments in the state,” said Gene TeSelle, a community activist who helped lead the charge in the late 1970s against construction of I-440. He later worked to ensure it would be built in the most unobtrusive manner possible.
Larry Woods, a veteran attorney who represented Hillsboro-West End-Belmont citizen group “Nashvillians Against I-440” in its efforts to delay construction of the roadway, said he has come to accept the interstate.
“It’s entertaining to view from the overpasses at rush hour, since it looks like a very scenic parking lot,” said Woods, who started working against the project in 1976. “But since I live very near I-440 and my law firm and our family bookstore [BookMan BookWoman] are in the same area, I have finally learned when it is safe and prudent to travel on I-440.”
Acceptance aside, 440 is an imperfect concrete-surfaced beast — one that has constantly been fed for 25 years and will soon again devour a meal. Last Friday, the Tennessee Department of Transportation opened bids on a project to add an eastbound I-440 lane servicing Nolensville Road and running to Interstate 24. Work could begin in October. The project follows the 2010 completion of an $8.5 million “extensive” concrete surface pavement repair project, according to B.J. Doughty, TDOT spokeswoman.
Though modest in mileage, I-440 has been expensive. During the most recent fiscal year, TDOT spent some $875,000 on the interstate. That covered the costs of pothole patching, bridge maintenance and repair, mowing, litter removal and concrete-slab repair.
Over the years, I-440 has undergone exchange modifications at both West End Avenue and the once-nightmarish eastern segment where it converges with I-24, I-40 and Murfreesboro Road. Likewise, the Belmont-Hillsboro segment of the interstate was retrofitted about 11 years ago with electric utility poles, a move that garnered much media attention and citizen concern at the time.
Even the speed limit has been in flux: It began at 55 mph, was upped to 65, and then knocked back down to 55 after citizen complaints.
Indeed, change has been a constant for the interstate, though that’s not surprising considering I-440’s heavy usage. Doughty said the interstate’s average daily traffic count in 2010 was 95,420. In comparison, the stretch of downtown’s I-24 to the 24-65 split — perhaps inner-city Nashville’s most heavily traveled interchange — sees an average daily traffic count of more than 120,000 vehicles.
There was much at stake in the early 1980s. Nashvillians were just beginning to embrace the city’s modest urban form, and many viewed I-440 as antithetical to their hopes for a less car-intense, suburban community.
With this backdrop, Woods filed suit in federal court in 1981, hoping to stop I-440’s construction. But Judge L. Clure Morton ruled that I-440 would not adversely impact the natural environment and that the state had followed adequate procedures. Construction began in 1982, with the clearing of a railroad gulch and the demolition of homes on Primrose Circle. Because some of the interstate was to be below ground level, hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of rock were blasted and hauled away.
Woods said the neighbors utilized provisions of the federal Environmental Protection Act to coerce TDOT into adopting “extraordinary measures” to dampen the negative effects of the new roadway. Among them: minimize noise and combustible pollutants; alter the roadway design and divert funds from other projects to beautify and conceal the harshness of the interstate; issue periodic reports about environmental impact; and undertake a lengthy public hearing process that included the state agreeing to ban truck traffic.
But with those victories came defeats: As soon as the first section was finished, for example, TDOT and the Federal Highway Authority lifted the ban on truck traffic.
Jan Bushing was also active in the fight over I-440. The founder of the Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association and a former state representative, Bushing served on the Metro Planning Commission at the time, and she was able to gain certain restrictions on planning and development: For instance, Bushing helped institute an I-440 impact ordinance, which strictly regulates development along its exits.
“Obviously it’s serving a vital role,” Bushing said of the interstate. She said reducing the speed limit from 65 to 55 mph has resulted in fewer tractor-trailer accidents. “[But] it’s still hard to believe that [such a bypass is] so close to the downtown core.”
David Kleinfelter, who lives near the interstate, worked at the Metro Planning Department when TDOT planned and then redesigned the I-440 west exit ramp onto West End in the mid-2000s. He and others were able to work with the state to build the new ramp with pedestrians in mind.
Kleinfelter, president of Walk/Bike Nashville, said as an urban limited-access highway, I-440 has “probably the lowest [noise and environmental] impact of any similar road I’m familiar with,” notwithstanding completely buried interstates in Boston and Phoenix.
“The road is below-grade in many areas, which limits its impact,” he said. “And some of the crossings include extra features such as large grassy lawns. Nevertheless, it still cuts through residential areas and
prevents numerous bike and pedestrian connections that otherwise could exist among neighborhoods.”
According to Doughty, I-440 represents some of TDOT’s earliest efforts to improve communication with the public and incorporate the desires of the community. Still, it is an imperfect interstate. It can’t accommodate rush-hour traffic. Many of its 1980s-era shoebox-style streetlights are discolored and rusted, revealing a yellowish undercoating. The exit at 21st Avenue/Hillsboro can be rough-and-tumble. Like any interstate, I-440 can be noisy, dangerous and generally unattractive.
Asked whether 440 — assuming Nashville does not eventually incorporate mass transit — can hit a plateau for vehicle use long before it ages another 25 years, Jan Bushing responded simply: “No.”