McKay’s celebration highlights Papermill dangers, city says money is holding up improvements

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) – Knoxville’s Papermill Drive is continuing to prompt traffic concerns, two years after a $100,000 survey from the City of Knoxville outlined improvements the city could make to the road. The issue, according to the city, is funding.

While Papermill has been on the city’s mind for years — as evidenced by the survey — concerns from business owners, travelers and emergency responders were highlighted Tuesday afternoon.

Previous Coverage: At least 20 heat-related incidents reported at McKay’s 50th anniversary: KFD

Tuesday marked an extreme case of heavy traffic on Papermill. One of the road’s most prolific businesses, McKay’s, hosted a 50th anniversary event, bringing in thousands of visitors. Those visitors clogged the roadway and lined up outside the store en masse; the Knoxville Fire Department reported 23 heat-related incidents and struggled to get crews in place to help those in need because of traffic.

It’s not a new issue, according to KFD’s Mark Wilbanks.

“A lot of times, we try to avoid going down Papermill,” Wilbanks said about his crews at nearby Station 18. “If we have to go to the opposite end, we’ll go around on Kingston Pike if it’s during rush hour. It’s not an easy road to travel.”

Going around Papermill or trying to squeeze a response vehicle down it can be dangerous, Wilbanks said, because in emergency situations, the clock is ticking.

“It’s hard for us to navigate, because it’s a very narrow road as it is. It really is only two lanes that you can travel on, no emergency lanes,” he said. “Truth be known, when somebody’s 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 an artery between Knoxville’s main interstate and two of its most-traveled roads, it consistently sees a fair amount of traffic, and has for a while.

Jacob Garner, a coordinator at Arbor College School of Massage at Papermill and Westfield Road, sees traffic issues daily and said the McKay’s situation was just an extreme example of a constant issue.

“I think what happened at McKay’s yesterday was the final example that this is not sustainable,” Garner said. “Emergency responders couldn’t even get in there.”

The traffic isn’t just an inconvenience, however. Not only does traffic on Papermill get in the way of emergency services, it also sees a high rate of crashes.

Previous Coverage: Plans for improved Papermill Drive unveiled

According to that 2022 study, Papermill’s worst stretch has a crash rate of 11.022. Crash rates are calculated using different factors, ultimately giving a snapshot of how often crashes happen on a certain stretch of road.

Compare Papermill’s 11.022 with similar roads. The survey categorized Papermill as an “urban two-lane road,” adding that the average crash rate across the state for similar roads stands at 2.334. Granted, the vast majority of crashes on Papermill listed in the study were non-fatal, no-injury crashes.

Crashes on Papermill are common enough that Garner said they come regularly enough for him to notice.

“It’s a given that every couple of months, someone will pull out, usually out of McKay’s, and they’ll get hit,” Garner said. “Having a two-lane road right there is not safe, at all.”

That same study also claimed the city has the power to improve things, saying “causative factors that can be corrected are contributing to the crashes.”

There’s a catch, though. The survey offered a recommendation to the city. Among other things, it recommended the city expand the road on the south side, add a 10-foot path and add a traffic light. That project is expected to cost at least $15 million, though.

That’s the city’s holdup, according to spokesperson Eric Vreeland, who provided a statement over email. The city did not make anyone available for an interview.

Yesterday’s public-safety issues on Papermill Drive were unrelated to infrastructure. A single business’ promotion was wildly popular and drew a much larger crowd than probably even the business had anticipated.

Everyone is grateful to the Knoxville Fire Department for its immediate response in treating people endangered by the heat. The business cooperated and stopped the promotion event once the safety issues arose.

The City has a long-range plan to upgrade this section of Papermill Drive, but the more than $15 million project is awaiting state and local funding. It is a priority, but due to the high cost, it’s not a project that will be ready to move forward in the immediate future.

According to the city’s ongoing project log, crews are working on 10 construction projects and has 47 design-status projects in the pipeline. Those 10 active projects include things like adding sidewalks and bike lanes to roads, renovating Augusta Quarry, replacing guardrails and more.

The active projects tend to have a smaller price tag than the recommended improvements to Papermill. The most expensive listed — a two-phase resurfacing job — claims to cost around $8.6 million total.

So the fix would be difficult and expensive, especially compared to other projects around Knoxville. It’s a struggle Wilbanks understands.

“There are a lot of challenges with Papermill. You’ve got the interstate on one side, on the other side you’ve got the creek,” he said. “So yes, we’d love to see Papermill widened; we’d love to see better travel lanes on it. Is it a possible thing for the city and local government to do? It could be very expensive and very hard to do, and I don’t think that’s an easy process for anybody.”

Garner also understands that fixing Papermill is no easy task, but to him, it’s something the city should prioritize.

“The current infrastructure we have right now cannot support the growth we have going on,” Garner said. “I know building infrastructure for roads isn’t simple, but I also know this isn’t safe.”

Vreeland said soon, Papermill should have a home on Knoxville’s upcoming projects list. Still, the city needs a way to fund and plan it before anything gets off the ground.

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) – Knoxville’s Papermill Drive is continuing to prompt traffic concerns, two …