Airport access getting easier

Gary B. Gray • Nov 10, 2012 at 8:45 PM

It’s getting easier to get to Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

Since the airport first opened in 1937, the main access point has been Bobby Hicks Highway. It just so happens that route, Tenn. Highway 75, is undergoing a more than $26 million renovation that will widen the road to five lanes and ease vehicle congestion to and from the airport.

Tenn. 75 was the only route until Interstate 81 was put in in 1972. Shortly thereafter, Tenn. Highway 357 was constructed, tying into I-81 and running southeast in a straight line directly to the airport.

“There are no other direct routes, and we really haven’t run any car counts or analyses yet to know what percent of traffic comes from where,” said Patrick Wilson, TCRA executive director. “We do know that 75 is used mostly by people coming in from Johnson City and 357 off 81 is used mostly by people in Kingsport and Bristol.”

As things stand — without completion of the Tenn. 75 project — both Wilson and Operations Manager David Jones said they continually hear how easy it is getting in and out of the airport.

“It wouldn’t hurt to have a few more passengers coming in,” Wilson said. “Certainly the expansion on 75 between (Tenn. Highway) 36 and here that widen it from two to five lanes will help, but I’m also excited about the coming work on the I-26/I-81 interchange. The widening of lanes there will reduce congestion.”

Work also is under way to widen Tenn. 36 from Boones Creek Road to Tenn. 75 — a shortcut, and an alternate route for passengers coming mostly from the southeastern portion of Kingsport. For now, however, the completion of the Tenn. 75 widening is the main priority.

The project is more than 50 percent complete, according to Mark Nagi, TDOT Region 1 Community Relations director. Nagi said Elizabethton’s Summers-Taylor is continuing grading operations up to the tie-in with the bridge project over the Holston River.

“The contractor is anticipating switching traffic to the new portion of (Tenn.) 75 from Boone Dam Road to Herron Drive within the next week, which will allow for grading operations on the right side of (the) center line to begin,” he said.

From Herron to Hamilton Road, the contractor is continuing grading operations of excavating both the big cuts on the left and right of the center line and continuing grading operations and utility installations. This work includes the installation of curb and gutter and a storm sewer, as well as two retaining walls. There are several areas that have been brought up to sub-grade and the contractor will be putting stone and some asphalt on these areas as they become ready.

The estimated completion date is May 31.

The old bridge spanning the Holston River on Tenn. 75 near Boone Dam was demolished and rebuilt last year. Built in 1936, it was brought down after the new five-lane bridge was completed. The highway now changes from four lanes to five at the approach to the bridge from either direction.

This was a separate $9.7 million project.

“The expansion is great, and we feel like we’re blessed by it, we just think they stopped about one mile short,” Wilson said. “That mile would make a big difference because of all the entities in that area, such as Northeast State Community College, businesses and subdivisions. With that area remaining two lanes it makes it kind of difficult.”

Jones said this is one of the main entrances and exits at the airport and that help is on the way.

“TDOT’s regional traffic office has identified a need there,” he said. “It will probably be in the $100,000 to $200,000 price range. But with that, there could be some helpful short-term improvements.”

Both men said it is hard to estimate what impact the Tenn. 75 widening will have on the number of passengers using the airport. Airport officials also have just finished up a master plan, which includes extensive widening on the loop in front of the main terminal.

“We’re moving toward fewer flights, but those flights are carrying many more passengers, meaning we’re seeing congestion at the curb front because of spikes in traffic,” Jones said. “We have received an $11 million grant for the extension of taxiway “R” to make it the full length of the main runway.

“This taxiway runs adjacent to Hamilton Road, and to get that phase in there we’re moving Hamilton Road back to the southeast to the edge of the airport property.”

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