Murfreesboro City Council gets update of I-24 SMART Corridor

An illustration from the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s website shows the full corridor and its multiple connection routes to pair Interstate 24 with State Route 1.

Murfreesboro motorists can hopefully expect a more reliable and safer commute next year as the Tennessee Department of Transportation pushes forward with its Interstate 24 SMART Corridor Project.

TDOT Director of Traffic Operations Brad Freeze and Assistant Director Lee Smith gave an update on the three-phase project at the Murfreesboro City Council’s workshop last Wednesday.

The plan to pair 28 miles along I-24 with 28.5 miles along State Route 1 by use of connector routes is mapped out in three phases, the first of which is nearly complete.

The connector routes somewhat resemble a ladder and will span about 30 miles. They will be located at Highway 231, SR 99, SR 96, Fortress Boulevard, I-840, SR 102, SR 266, Waldron Road, SR 171, SR 254, SR 255 and SR 155.

The department also plans to incorporate improvements to the existing I-24 corridor to reduce crashes and provide commuters with a better idea of how long it will take them to reach their destinations. These changes are planned for the $45 million second phase of the project, which is estimated to be complete by December of 2022.

“June of next year is when we really will be operating the (first phase) system,” said Smith.

Some of these improvements include extending the on and off ramps, adding emergency pull-offs and installing ramp meters, which are a new concept for the state. Overhead Intelligent Transportation Systems signals will also be used to warn drivers of traffic conditions ahead.

A video demonstrating these improvement concepts is available on TDOT’s website at https://bit.ly/3yIPK4f.

Vice-Mayor Madelyn Scales Harris asked if the TDOT team would be working with mobile navigation apps like Waze, which already features live updates for car collisions, police activity and road closures.

Freeze said the two entities started working together in 2015 because of the Connected Citizen Partnership.

Smith said the focus of the improvements is on “travel time reliability, not necessarily a shorter travel time” as well as cutting down the number of congestion-causing traffic incidents. So far, the work completed in phase one has shaved off an average of about five minutes for commuters.

Liquor store discussion

Assistant City Attorney Roman Hankins presented information on the city’s current liquor ordinance regulations and provided two options for the council to consider in terms of approving certificates of compliance.

These discussions are a result of the state’s moratorium on issuing new liquor store licenses expiring on July 1.

Murfreesboro’s regulations follow a ratio of one retail liquor store permitted for every 5,000 residents. Hankins said the 2019 population estimate totaled to 146,900, which would yield an allowance of 29 stores.

As of Aug. 11, the council has approved 25, excluding one application that is pending and one that was deemed incomplete.

The city not only can control the number of stores that pop up but also the areas in which they can be placed. Stores can’t be placed within 1,500 feet of an existing liquor store, 500 feet of a school or 300 feet of a place of worship.

Hankins said these distances are measured from the main entrance of the store using the shortest distance of pedestrian travel.

Councilman Rick LaLance asked if anyone on the council would be open to talking about a distance requirement for liquor stores being built near residential areas of town. He and Councilman Shawn Wright said they’d both prefer if liquor stores weren’t the first visible businesses when entering the city from the interstate.

Mayor Shane McFarland asked if anyone on the council would be interested in making changes to the population requirements to allow more stores than what was initially approved in 2018.

No one spoke in favor of amending this section of the ordinance.

“I would be closer to eliminating it than I would be increasing it,” said Councilman Ronnie Martin, who was in favor of keeping the current distance regulations.

Martin also pointed out potential issues that could arise if the council were to put in location restrictions in place for interstate interchange store locations in terms of what other businesses could be affected in the future.

Councilman Bill Shacklett said he’d prefer to keep the allowance requirements.

In considering future applications, Hankins suggested considering a first come, first serve approval process or a lottery approval process. He said city staff expressed a preference for the first option as it wouldn’t pose any drastic changes.

“The only issue, I think, that we had determined would be what if you’ve got two people that come side-by-side, and they’re at the window together? Who wins that?,” said Hankins. “We feel like having the completed application threshold for consideration would probably deal with most of the issues that would come up in that sense.”

City Finance Director Jennifer Brown said most applications that are submitted aren’t considered complete on the first try. Additional information is usually requested.

Mayor Shane McFarland asked why liquor stores are looked at differently than other businesses from the state’s perspective. Hankins said he believes it’s tied to historical “sin product” connotations.

“I think things have changed to where we don’t legislate check cashing places that I probably could argue are just as bad as liquor stores and predominately all next to neighborhoods,” said McFarland. “We don’t legislate Walmarts, and we get hammered over how many Walmarts we have, and they sell beer. They sell liquor.”

If the door is opened for this discussion, he said the council would also have to discuss regulating several other businesses sprinkled around town.

No changes have been made to the city’s liquor ordinance.