Honking horns and idling engines on Interstate 40 (I-40) were replaced with the sounds of running shoes and family footsteps on an empty roadway—marking the grand opening of a major urban thoroughfare. After decades of congestion, years of planning and construction, and months of road closure, I-40 in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, reopened to the public with the Fast 40 Dash road race.
This project is now looked to as a model for urban roadway improvements; we continue to be very proud of what we were able to accomplish.
I-40 carries more than 100,000 vehicles per day to support heavy traffic demands through downtown Knoxville and the University of Tennessee. Formerly known as “malfunction junction,” this aging roadway once had one of the worst interstate safety records in the United States.
In response, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) partnered with CDM Smith on a $190 million solution to redesign the freeway and nearby interchanges—improving safety, capacity and local access, while respecting neighboring residents and ecosystems. CDM Smith provided traffic and planning services, roadway and structural design, geotechnical and construction engineering, and inspection services on this innovative project—the largest in TDOT history.
Smart Action Planning
Looking to efficiently overcome the many environmental, safety, capacity and community challenges to update the interstate, TDOT pioneered the “SmartFIX” process—an accelerated planning and construction approach—and launched “SmartFIX40” as its first project. “We created SmartFIX40 to find the best solution to improve I-40 for community members, highway drivers and our project partners,” explains Paul Degges, TDOT chief engineer.
Jeff Mize, CDM Smith principal project manager, recalls the importance of collaboration in the early stages of the project. “We partnered with TDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to hold an Accelerated Construction Technology Transfer (ACTT)—a meeting of industry leaders from departments of transportation across the country to evaluate project scope and look for ways to accelerate construction.”
From the ACTT, the plan for SmartFIX40 took shape with a phased construction approach: the first to improve affected surrounding roadways and downtown linkages, and the second to completely close off 1 mile of I-40 through downtown Knoxville to advance project delivery.
Being a Sensitive Neighbor
The planned road closure and construction necessitated heightened community involvement and communication throughout the project. “We went through a rather extensive context-sensitive process with the local neighborhoods to discuss their concerns and look for solutions,” says Robert Bowers, CDM Smith vice president. “This allowed us to bring the project team and community together.”
Because the road serves the central business district and several historic neighborhoods, final designs incorporated community-sponsored solutions, like form-lined retaining walls, clear panel noise barriers, reconnected neighborhood streets, planned greenway linkages and stormwater quality improvements.
Local residents and visitors stayed informed throughout the project, thanks to a public outreach campaign that included a dedicated community officer.An extensive communication plan helped to keep everyone informed before and during construction. “We had to notify two different user groups,” describes Mize. “First, we provided folks in town with constant and timely information about how to get around during the closure.” TDOT supported local residents through a project website, community relations center and a dedicated community information officer. Local residents also received information through public service announcements starring Dolly Parton, and were kept up to date for local sporting events at the University of Tennessee and Bristol Motor Speedway. Non-local motorists received information at rest stops, on road signs, through updated maps and global positioning systems, and broadcast messages on a dedicated AM radio station.
Closing Down to Speed Up
With planning complete and the public informed, TDOT was able to safely close the 1-mile section of I-40 through Knoxville for construction, providing additional space and freedom to work around the clock without traffic interruptions. “Being allowed to close the interstate was a major safety and efficiency consideration for all of our project partners,” notes Bowers. “Traffic around worksites carries safety concerns for motorists and workers, as well as greater potential for traffic delays.”
Closing the interstate proved to be a great success, resulting in a 14-month total road closure, rather than several years of limited access through traditional construction. Gerald Nicely, TDOT commissioner at the time of project close, noted this innovative aspect of SmartFIX40 in an I-40 reopening statement, “We estimate that by closing the roadway, we have saved 2.5 to 3 years from the time that would have been required to implement the project under traditional methods … This is the largest interstate improvement effort ever undertaken by TDOT and required the dedication of thousands of workers.”
“Thanks to initial planning and collaboration, as well as focused community involvement and communication, we were able to safely expand and improve I-40 in Knoxville,” concludes Degges. “This project is now looked to as a model for urban roadway improvements; we continue to be very proud of what we were able to accomplish.”