When Gov. Bill Haslam declared open the final stretch of state Route 840 last week, he brought to a close a tumultuous 26-year highway project. The plan to divert eastbound and westbound traffic around Nashville both to the north and the south looked good on paper, or so then-Gov. Lamar Alexander thought in 1986 when he gave it his approval.
Planners conceptualized the bypass as an interstate in the 1970s. But state officials later opted to decline federal funds — and with it cumbersome environmental regulatory strings — thus relegating the roadway to a state route. Even still, the project was expensive, eventually costing $753.4 million. So, the state nixed the northern half of the roadway, leaving in place plans for a 78-mile corridor that followed a 25-mile-radius arc south of the city from I-40 near Dickson to I-40 in Lebanon.
All told, construction crews paved their way through portions of Dickson, Hickman, Rutherford, Williamson and Wilson counties. But before the road would be able to fulfill its mission as a Nashville bypass, the unfinished 12 miles of 840 between Pinewood Road and Columbia Pike in southwestern Williamson County had to open. Even for a project that ultimately languished through five governorships, this is where the real trouble began. As the rumble of bulldozers neared, discussions grew louder about unintended consequences the road would have upon southern Williamson County.
The voice of environmental concern was not raised when the crews pushed westward from Wilson County into Rutherford County, nor eastward from Dickson County through the northwest quadrant of Hickman County — not loudly enough for elected officials to take note, anyway. However, when the time neared to pave this particular stretch of road west of I-65, grumbles arose about the need to protect air quality, waterways and animal habitats. Minimizing the effect the roadway would have upon the aesthetic qualities of the region also became a prominent topic at gatherings in Leiper’s Fork and Thompson’s Station. The myriad concerns soon congealed into a unified grassroots movement. And quickly emerging at its forefront was Gene Cotton, a songwriter and environmentalist who would eventually get the Tennessee Department of Transportation to tread lightly through the habitats of Tennessee’s wealthiest county, and permanently end its longstanding practice of viewing environmental concerns as something to be scoffed at.
“The construction of state Route 840 represents monumental efforts as well as monumental changes for TDOT. While the controversy over this last remaining section of the highway did delay its completion, the result is a project that preserves and protects the natural beauty of the area,” said TDOT Commissioner John Schroer. “Through this process, the department has learned the value of community involvement and support and has forever changed the way it operates. The completion of 840 will provide connectivity for dozens of communities and a new option for travelers who want to bypass downtown Nashville.”
To enact this change, Cotton doggedly lobbied elected officials and environmental engineers throughout the 1990s and well into the new millennium to forestall devastating unintended consequences to the region.
“[TDOT built 840] as a state road to avoid the environmental restrictions of it being a federal interstate. That’s exactly why they did it.” Cotton told The City Paper. “The construction did not come across my property; that was never the issue. The issue was, if they’re going to build it, build it right.”
Cotton eventually filed a lawsuit against TDOT that led to numerous changes in the planned path of 840 to protect watersheds and other sensitive habitats as well as TDOT policies. In 2003, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen announced “significant changes to the 840 design would be made,” according to TDOT’s website.
“They planned to cross headwater streams that feed into the Harpeth River,” Cotton said. “They would have bulldozed those. Instead, they built bridges.”
Other changes his group effected specific to 840 include the addition of paths for deer and other wildlife to safely pass beneath the road, and the notable absence of billboards along the roadside. However, the biggest difference his group made is a matter of TDOT policy.
“The biggest win is that before TDOT could build another major project, they have to have all of their permits in place and hold public meetings,” Cotton said.
Another “win” is that Bredesen created a new position within TDOT that focuses exclusively upon the environmental impact of projects. According to Cotton, TDOT’s relatively newfound sensitivity to the environment established during the Bredesen administration continues under Haslam.
“[TDOT] Commissioner John Schroer is keeping TDOT moving in the right direction,” Cotton said. “They are light-years ahead of where they were when we first got involved.”
State officials estimate 840 will immediately reduce the number of vehicles traveling through Nashville by 8,800 vehicles, a number they expect to grow fivefold over the next 20 years. The number of vehicles that travel only portions of the roadway, naturally, are higher than those that travel the entirety of the 78-mile span.
“Traffic on the eastern section of 840 that is now open ranges from 14,600 in Wilson County, to 22,700 in Rutherford County, to 17,000 in Williamson County,” said Beth Emmons, a TDOT spokeswoman. “Those figures will each go up by 8,800 [now that the entirety of 840 is open].”
Tennessee National Guard Parkway
Other names considered
Ronald Reagan Parkway
Years under development
Cost per mile
Years under construction per mile
Sources: TDOT, state Rep. Glen Casada