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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) – Knoxville's Papermill Drive continues to cause traffic concerns two years after a $100,000 survey by the City of Knoxville identified improvements the city could make to the road. The problem, the city says, is funding.

While Papermill has been a concern for the city for years – as the survey shows – the concerns of business owners, travelers and emergency responders were particularly highlighted on Tuesday afternoon.

Previous reporting: At least 20 heat-related incidents reported at McKay's 50th anniversary: ​​KFD

On Tuesday, Papermill experienced extreme traffic congestion. One of the street's most successful stores, McKay's, was hosting a 50th anniversary event and attracted thousands of visitors. Those visitors clogged the street and lined up in masses outside the store. The Knoxville Fire Department reported 23 heat-related incidents and had difficulty getting emergency personnel to the scene to help those in need because of traffic.

According to Mark Wilbanks of the KFD, this is not a new problem.

“We often try to avoid the Papermill,” Wilbanks said of his crews at nearby Station 18. “If we need to go to the other end, we take a detour via Kingston Pike during rush hour. It's not an easy road to travel.”

It can be dangerous to drive around Papermill or try to force an emergency vehicle through it, Wilbanks said, because in emergency situations the clock is ticking.

“It's hard for us to navigate because the road is already very narrow. You can only really drive in two lanes, there are no hard shoulders,” he said. “To be honest, if someone is really sick, a minute can make a difference.”

The two-lane Papermill serves as a connecting road between Kingston Pike, Northshore Drive and I-40. As a traffic artery between Knoxville's main interstate and two of its busiest roads, it has been consistently busy for some time.

Jacob Garner, a coordinator at Arbor College School of Massage on the corner of Papermill and Westfield Road, faces traffic problems on a daily basis and said the situation at the McKay home is just an extreme example of a constant problem.

“I think what happened yesterday at McKay was the latest example of this not being sustainable,” Garner said. “The emergency responders couldn't even get in.”

However, traffic is not only a nuisance. Traffic on Papermill not only hinders emergency services, but also leads to a high accident rate.

Previous reporting: Plans for improved Papermill Drive unveiled

According to this 2022 study, the accident rate on the worst stretch of Papermill is 11,022. Accident rates are calculated using a variety of factors and ultimately provide a snapshot of how often accidents occur on a particular stretch of road.

Compare Papermill's 11,022 to similar roads. The survey categorized Papermill as an “urban two-lane road,” adding that the statewide average crash rate for similar roads is 2,334. Granted, the vast majority of crashes on Papermill listed in the study were nonfatal, noninjury accidents.

Accidents at the Papermill show are so common that Garner said they happen so regularly that he notices.

“It's clear that every few months, someone drives out of the garage, usually McKay's, and gets hit,” Garner said. “A two-lane road is not safe at all here.”

The same study also claimed that the city has the opportunity to make improvements, saying that “there are causal factors contributing to the accidents that can be addressed.”

There is a catch, however. The survey included a recommendation to the city. Among other things, the city was advised to widen the street on the south side, add a 10-foot-wide path, and install a traffic light. However, this project is expected to cost at least $15 million.

This is the city's problem, said spokesman Eric Vreeland, who issued a statement via email. The city did not make anyone available for an interview.

Yesterday's public safety problems on Papermill Drive had nothing to do with infrastructure. A single company's promotion was extremely popular and drew a much larger crowd than the company itself probably expected.

Everyone is grateful to the Knoxville Fire Department for their immediate response to treat those at risk from the heat. The company cooperated and canceled the promotional event when safety concerns arose.

The city has a long-term plan to upgrade this section of Papermill Drive, but the $15 million-plus project is awaiting state and local funding. It is a priority, but due to the high cost, it is not a project that can be implemented in the near future.

According to the city's ongoing project log, crews are working on 10 construction projects and have 47 projects in the pipeline in planning status. These 10 active projects include things like adding sidewalks and bike lanes to streets, renovating the Augusta Quarry, replacing guardrails, and more.

The current projects are generally less expensive than the improvements recommended for Papermill. The most expensive project – a two-phase recoating – is expected to cost a total of about $8.6 million.

So repairs would be difficult and expensive, especially compared to other projects in the Knoxville area. Wilbanks understands it's an uphill battle.

“Papermill presents a lot of challenges. On one side is the highway, on the other side is the creek,” he said. “So yes, we would like to widen Papermill; we would like to see better lanes on it. Is that feasible for the city and local government? It could be very expensive and very difficult, and I don't think that's an easy process for anyone.”

Garner also recognizes that rehabilitating Papermill is no easy task, but he believes it should be a priority for the city.

“The current infrastructure cannot support the current growth,” Garner said. “I know building road infrastructure is not easy, but I also know it is not safe.”

Vreeland said Papermill should soon be on the list of next projects in Knoxville. However, the city needs to find a way to finance and plan the project before it even gets off the ground.

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