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West Elk widening project moves forward

The first stages of progress are now easily visible all along the north side of West Elk Avenue as a long-awaited widening of that section of the street appears to be moving forward.
Over the past few weeks, crews have been hard at work taking down portions of the buildings to be affected by the plan which will take the road from four lanes to five and include a turning lane.
According to Mark Nagi, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, work is currently underway on the TDOT SR-91 project as several of the structures in the 200 and 300 blocks of the heavily-traveled thoroughfare are already partially demolished.
“Our environmental folks are currently working on asbestos removal in existing buildings,” Nagi said. “Those land acquisitions are now complete,” he added, “and our department is in the process of finalizing relocation-related activities of the purchased residences and businesses.”
Evidence of the environmental abatement extends westward on Elk as far down as the former Hunan Chinese Restaurant with several buildings noticeably affected.
Elizabethton City Manager Daniel Estes added that he expects to see more demolition continue once the asbestos abatements are finished, but said some of the properties in that area aren’t set for demolition.
Nagi underscored Estes’ comment, saying that although the project consists of widening West Elk Avenue to the north side the road, the majority of the buildings to be demolished are between Hunan Chinese Restaurant and Nunley’s Furniture Store.
The City of Elizabethton is also moving forward in the process, voting to acquire the necessary property outside the right of way in order to put in a water line. That stage moved forward during the Elizabethton City Council’s September meeting when the council unanimously approved the purchase of 19 utility easements for a cost of $140,000.
“We are in the process of securing those easements through the water resource department,” Estes said. “Once that is completed and once TDOT completes the rest of the property acquisition process, then I would expect the project can move forward.
“But,” he added, “this is a TDOT administered project. The only interface we have are water and sewers.”
TDOT SR-91 has been slow to develop. The Elizabethton Star reported early plans for the project in its September 22, 2014 edition, saying the “earliest” residents might expect to see construction begin would be fall 2017.
Several local businesses relocated long ago in anticipation of the work that might commence at any time. One of the first to go was Charlie Long of Allstate, who moved to Broad Street from his former office at 100 B East Elk Avenue. The Shell Station, located at 101 East Elk, between Elk and Broad Street, was razed.
And then… nothing.
To the residents of Elizabethton, it has seemed like a long drawn-out process, but Nagi says there is a good explanation.
“The length of time it has taken to see movement on the project is due to the State of Tennessee’s ‘pay as you go’ policy,” Nagi said.
“Our state operates with no transportation debt,” he added. “We don’t move forward on any stage of a project without knowing that funding is in place.”
“The project development process is divided into three separate phases: Preliminary Engineering, Right of Way, and Construction. Each phase is funded separately in TDOT’s three-year work program. As each phase nears completion, it is considered for funding for the next phase along with all other legislative projects statewide.”  
A project such as this includes a preliminary engineering phase, public outreach and a mandatory environmental re-evaluation of project-related impacts as well as the roadway plans necessary to begin the Right of Way (ROW) phase.
So, Nagi said, when the project received the funding for the ROW in 2018, the department began the process of coordinating for the relocation of affected utilities and appraising and acquiring the properties needed for construction of the proposed roadway improvements.
According to Nagi, the construction phase has been budgeted in TDOT’s work program and is currently on the December 2020 schedule to let.
“Once the department has completed the relocation-related activities and the City of Elizabethton has secured the easements as needed for relocation of utility facilities, the department will request authorization of funding prior to advertising the project for contract letting,” he said, adding that once a contract is awarded, a notice to begin work for the contractor can be expected to be received within 6 to 8 weeks of the letting date.