Envisioning I-26

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A Look at I-26 and Northeast Tennessee

  • History Lesson: Appalachian Highway Corridor “B” was designated in the 1960s to run from Columbus, Ohio, to Asheville, N.C. This corridor was slated to be improved to [a] four-lane divided highway status along the existing U.S. 23 with funding provided by the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to the Johnson City (Tennessee) Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization.
  • Smart PR: Among the recent marketing materials distributed by the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee was the four-color glossy 2004-2005 Relocation Guide. With a focus on issues such as attractive housing costs and a low rate for violent crimes, it also reminds on the transportation side that: “We are located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Northeast Tennessee with Interstate 26 passing through the center of Johnson City and connecting to Interstate 81.”
  • The Numbers Game: The 2000 Census revealed a 16 percent population growth in Washington County.
  • The Infrastructure: Highways are not the only measure of adequate transportation infrastructure in Northeast Tennessee and nearby communities. A newly opened cargo terminal is among the improvements at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport. The area population within a 75-mile radius of the airport was last reported at about 2.9 million.
  • City Life: In 1999, the National Civic League awarded the Tri-Cities TN/VA region the All-America City designation, an honor that is only given to 10 communities per year. And in the mid-1990s, Money Magazine named the tri cities of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol the 33rd best community or metropolitan area in America.
  • Healthy Healthcare Industry: The Asheville, N.C., metropolitan area and the Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, Tenn., metropolitan areas have an approximate buying power of $16 billion with a tri-cities retail economy of about $3 billion-plus and a healthcare industry of almost $4 billion and 50,000 jobs.

Country Roads May Take Them Home But Chamber in Northeast Tennessee Looks to I-26 for Economic Development

Any driver who has watched a road project unfold recognizes the familiar phases: the surveyors on the side of the road, the lanes that are shut while a shoulder is widened, new paving on a smoldering night or striping on a crisp morning and then, almost suddenly, new signs. But these scenarios are just the tip of the iceberg. In a journey that can take decades, hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work by transportation experts, lobbyists, elected officials, regional coalitions and business leaders, a road is not just a road.

It is a path to the future.

Nowhere is this truer than in Northeast Tennessee where the mountains and the highways miraculously merge and attract travelers from near and far.

In August of 2003, I-26, an interstate that the area had steadfastly worked toward since the 1980s but had anticipated for years prior to that, was officially designated along with a new corridor from Sams Gap at the state line to Mars Hill, N.C. It was a landmark moment for several reasons:

  • One, I-26 is seen as a gateway for growth;
  • Two, it is a culmination of a long-standing goal to link Johnson City, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C.;
  • Three, the Appalachians have been a historical draw for centuries; and
  • Four, securing interstate status for a road means a higher level of commitment from the federal government, including more funding.

In June 2003, the Johnson City Business magazine called the opening of I-26 a “new era of access” and months later, the Johnson City Press editorialized that the “traffic count proves I-26 can be boon to this area.” But for area transportation advocates, I-26 is not just a road that has garnered media attention.

Completion of the new route signals a crossroads for a region vying to compete in a macro economy and during an era in which municipal leaders turn to best practices and savvy programs to help cities become the best they can be. It’s true that many on Capitol Hill might laud robust transportation funding while a conflicted national media labels it “pork,” but for many municipalities, transportation infrastructure improvements equal a foundation for economic vitality.

“[I-26] proves that you can have a vision and with that vision we are being nourished as opposed to perishing without one,” says Gary Mabrey III, president and CEO of the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. (That vision might be more recent history, but legend has it that in 1919, an N.C. state senator stood on a stump at Sams Gap and proclaimed that a wide and smooth highway would one day run between Johnson City and Asheville.)

Through the Eyes of Those Who Made I-26 Happen

In the 1980s, a “Directions 2000” campaign by the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce helped solidify the goal for an interstate connection through the mountains and signaled a round of needed changes.

Those included plans to four-lane U.S. 23 from Erwin to the state line and securing an additional designation as I-181 for the portion from Kingsport to Johnson City. (I-81 is a major interstate that runs from Virginia to I-40.) The section from Johnson City to the North Carolina state line was dedicated in July 1995, later becoming part of the I-26 system when it officially opened in 2003.

But the caveat here is that after many years of work and $400 million-plus spent by Tennessee and North Carolina, word came in 2002 through N.C. to Northeast Tennessee that the Federal Highway Administration wasn’t planning on officially designating I-26 any time soon. (The hold-up was a segment in Asheville that has since been designated “Future I-26.”)

Thus began a rally to ensure that the I-26 designation was realized, according to Mabrey and Alan Bridwell, director of marketing and technical services for the Johnson City Economic Development Board.

Case in point is a quickly drafted letter from 17 Tennessee legislators in January 2003 to new Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely that reiterated their support of “the designation of the U.S. 23/I-181 corridor through our area as Interstate 26 upon completion of North Carolina’s new freeway from Sams Gap to Mars Hill.”

Transportation Parity Isn’t a Maybe – It’s a Must

Bridwell began working in the transportation arena in 1974 and as experts go, he’s a titan. He is one of the key people that leaders in Northeast Tennessee turned to when they built a case that a chamber coalition was able to take in early 2003 to Washington, D.C., to ensure that the designation didn’t languish.

“It took us a lot of efforts with the federal highway department and talking with the congressional delegation and others to ensure that what was complete was going to be designated and to say, ‘even though there is a segment that is going to be called Future I-26, that should not preclude the highway administration from going ahead and designating the part of I-26 that was up to standards,’ ” recounts Mabrey.

Pivotal to its reasoning was that the route had already served as an interstate detour when I-40 was closed for months in 1997 east toward Asheville and west toward Knoxville when a rock slide blocked the road. But there were also other arguments – one, for instance, that I-73 had been incrementally designated in North Carolina.

“Davy Crockett said, ‘Be sure you’re right. Then go ahead,’ ” Mabrey adds. “We have known then, we know now and our attitude and approach is when we’re right, we go ahead. …And I think that’s the attitude of folks here in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. This is where the frontier started. This is where folks made their great journeys west and developed this country and developed this nation and we carry that attitude forward today. The pioneer spirit began here and the pioneer spirit for the 21st century is alive and well.”

No question, the pioneer spirit is alive and well in this unique and lush part of the United States. The area continues to attract major corporations and transplants and its business leaders view an evolving transportation infrastructure as part of the economic paradigm. Johnson City – which more than a century ago started as a train depot – is today a bustling center of change. A vibrant business community, affordable real estate and convenient access are among the area’s appeal.

“To me, the 21st century highway, no pun intended, is the Internet – it’s fiber – and at the same time though, you still are going to have to ship item A to point B in the most cost-effective way possible. And whether that’s air, land, rail, water or whatever, transportation services, the modality to get from point A to point B in the most cost-effective, safe, hopefully environmentally and aesthetically pleasing way, I think that’s just going to be a watchword forever,” says Mabrey.

He adds: “I understand and believe that the Interstate 26 project was one of the better examples of how to protect and enhance the environment and at the same time open that natural beauty for progress and business and economy to all who would ever fly in or drive in or come to this region. To me, that’s the best case study I can think of.”

From an economic standpoint, it appears that the opening of I-26 will meet Northeast Tennessee’s forecasting. Though complete statistics have not been compiled, anecdotal evidence of increased business, better routes for distribution companies and a heightened tourism industry bode well. The I-26 Welcome Center in North Carolina, for example, saw a 60 percent increase in visitors from December 2003 to December 2004, according to Bridwell.

They’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain

A native of Johnson City, Mabrey has spent the majority of his life in the Northeast Tennessee region, with the exception of a stint in the military during the Vietnam era and time spent pursuing a career in city management. Through the years, he has learned the value of working with top-notch professionals who are as knowledgeable about the big-picture as they are about the minutiae.

Bridwell, now a transportation expert-cum-Web-guru, is one of those.

Recently, Bridwell pursued getting the mapping service NAVTECH to change out its information to include proper numbering and the I-26 designation so sources such as mapquest.com and Rand McNally would have the most current information. (He knew that the work wasn’t over just because I-26 received the “designation” stamp of approval from the feds.)

Mabrey and Bridwell aside, it is impossible to list the players who have been involved in the I-26 project. A snapshot view, however, provides a historical look into how road advocates become steersmen who guide projects through the support-building, planning, legislative and funding processes.

On the Tennessee side, the list includes Eddie Williams Jr., a former professional baseball player who (along with his North Carolinian counterpart Mac McGough) strove to see U.S. 23 upgraded to interstate status. Kudos are also given by sources to the late James H. Quillen, a longtime member from the area of the U.S. House of Representatives; the Lamar Alexander administration in Tennessee and its inclusion of a roads package on a priority list in the 1980s and its help in getting additional sections built between Johnson City and Erwin via a statewide gas tax increase; Gov. Ned McWherter, whose administration helped ensure that the four-lane freeway in Tennessee was built to the North Carolina state line; and most recently, Congressman Bill Jenkins.

Jenkins’ chief of staff, Brenda Otterson, said that Jenkins’ office helped navigate the process and secure support at the critical time when the designation hung in the balance.

Through formal letters, background supplied by area leaders and transportation experts from Tennessee and support from the area chamber, Jenkins and his staff worked with organizations such as the Federal Highway Administration, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the North Carolina Department of Transportation to guarantee the designation.

“There were a few times I remember mowing the yard and I was thinking, ‘Good grief, I don’t want have to go back to Nashville [the state capital].’ I thought we’d already done this,” muses Bridwell. “I thought back to a couple people that started it early on and how hard they worked and they were no longer around to see it conclude. But Gary and I and some of the rest of us were. About every time I think of those guys, [I think] we’re going to reload and come back.”

Deemed one of the most important infrastructure projects for Northeast Tennessee in recent decades, executives like Mabrey and Bridwell weren’t about to give up.

Appealing their case on the federal level included some valuable takeaways they’d like to share with other ATM members:

  • Recognize that there is a dichotomy between the legislative process and politics but always respect the process.
  • Proceed with thoughtfulness and “a sense of the long haul” that’s in store and then utilize the political aspect by building relationships with administrative people, such as Senate staffers.
  • Employ a coalition mentality.
  • Realize that there may not be a “manual” somewhere that tells you what to do when you deal with the feds and understand you may be dealing in relatively uncharted waters in some highly unique instances.
  • Have entities in place that can eloquently present your case and don’t rely on some “diversionary route in a smoke-filled room.”

The Make-Up of Mabrey

If you looked up the term high-achiever in the dictionary, you might very well find a picture of Mabrey. He oversees a chamber with nearly 900 members and is responsible for a $1.2-$1.3 million budget. And his professional accomplishments, as well as his volunteer efforts, run paragraphs long and include serving on the U.S. Chamber Board of Directors. He is also past chair of the United Way Campaign and past president of the United Way Board.

But it is also clear that humbleness is on his personal CV. He reminds that “there is not any ‘I’ in team” and recently told a Rotary Club that “any time you see a turtle on top of fencepost, you know he had to have some help to get there.”

Despite the praise he gives others, Mabrey is still an impressive maverick of sorts. He helped spearhead “Vision 2025: Communities Connected,” a sweeping two-state “vision” for Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that looked at a plethora of issues, from transportation to education. Based on citizenry input, Mabrey points out that “it wasn’t just a bunch of power structure businesspeople sitting around looking where we needed to be in 2025.”

Citizens from 60 communities, 17 counties and two states were asked about what issues they saw as most important for their communities in the future. More than 1,000 people shared their ideas and in the end, 7,000 “informational bits and pieces” went into the final overview. Ideas were gathered at public meetings, through surveys that were mailed in and via the Internet.

Now “Vision 2025” – which deals primarily with quality-of-life issues, a buzz-phrase for this new millennium – is part of what guides leaders in Northeast Tennessee as they move toward tomorrow. But for Mabrey, there are other key lessons that guide him.

He says his 18 years with the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber have helped instill in him the philosophy that there must be a “we” in whatever is done and that one should strive to maintain a balance between growth and preserving the elements that draw people to an area. He also says that being “inclusive” provides a barometer on how to proceed and there should be a “diverse group around the table.”

“The bottom line is when you run into a situation where you want growth and others don’t, then you have to become an even more effective communicator and you have to take time to speak with them individually and sit with them around coffee tables and sit with them around other meeting tables to ensure that they understand fully the impact of the position that you’re taking or fully the impact of what it means to them,” explains Mabrey.

“So what happens when people say, ‘we don’t want that?’ …You become even more patient and persistent and as Davy Crockett said, ‘If you think you’re right, you go at it from different angles in order to bring them along,’ ” he concludes. “And maybe you have to go all the way up to the top of the ledger sheet and bring them down slowly but surely to the bottom line that you’ve been sitting on for days or weeks or months.”

Published in the July/August 2005 newsletter of Americans for Transportation Mobility

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