A Million Dollar Sidewalk to Nowhere

From the neighborhood where I live, just east of the city limits, the quickest route to downtown Cookeville used to be Highway 70N, otherwise known as Spring Street. In the good old days, I could pull out of my driveway and be on the square, a distance of exactly five miles, in about ten minutes.

But as our fair city and county continue to grow, so has the number of loaded dump trucks creeping along that stretch of road. So has the number of businesses. So has the number of new houses and condos and apartments. Getting to town these days requires patience, nerves of steel and—on weekdays– at least twenty minutes. What Cookeville really needs on that busy stretch of highway are more lanes to carry the ever-increasing traffic.

What we got is a million dollar sidewalk.

If your route to or from town takes you through the Spring Street-Old Kentucky Road intersection, you know that for almost a year now we’ve dealt with orange barrels and traffic cones and workers standing in the middle of the road in all kinds of weather, patiently turning hand-held signs from STOP to SLOW and back again. We’ve dealt with earth-moving equipment and electrical equipment and paving equipment and painting equipment. At times, three lanes have had to funnel down to one. Just last week, eastbound traffic was backed up from the intersection all the way to Big O Donuts. That’s what I call a slowdown.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked with Blake Mayo, who has been Public Works director for the City of Cookeville for about a year. The sidewalk project, for which the city received a state grant, was born almost a decade ago. “I came to work for this department in 2017,” Blake told me, “so you might say I inherited it.” From 2014 until 2016, the city waited for a notice to proceed with right-of-way certification. That certification wasn’t complete until 2021, by which time initial costs for the project had—not surprisingly—skyrocketed, requiring that it be redesigned. The sidewalk runs along the north side of Spring Street between the Gulf Station and Raider Drive, a distance of about half a mile. Extending it further west on Spring Street toward the courthouse, as originally planned, or onto side streets such as Hudgens would cost millions of dollars the city doesn’t have at this time.

Whose idea, I asked Blake, was this project?

“The state grant specified a ‘multimodal’ project,” he told me, “so that’s what we were required to build.” The new sidewalk can be used by runners and dog walkers and people pushing baby strollers and folks in wheelchairs. But–like pretty much all sidewalks—it’s not for use by bicyclists, who are required to ride either in the street or in a bike lane, which we don’t have.

Here’s the thing. Obviously, pedestrians at Avery Trace Middle School and the Putnam County YMCA and the Cookeville Community Center have fairly easy access to this beautiful new sidewalk. But once they’re on it, where will they go? Well… they can stroll to the Gulf station. Where the sidewalk ends, they can proceed east at the traffic light to the Circle K station and Burger King. Or they can cross the street heading south at the traffic light and be at Food Lion.

But how many people will actually want to go to those places on foot? Enough people to justify a million dollars and a year of snarled traffic? I think not.

Would that we could have done something more sensible with the grant money, which (obviously) came out of the pockets of Tennessee taxpayers. Many worthy projects come to mind. Bike lanes, for starters. Landscaping around the gargantuan new addition to the jail.  Or beginning a clean-up of City Lake, which has been neglected for far too long.

But a sidewalk to nowhere? I just don’t get it.

(June 10, 2023)