There’s an avalanche coming, and I’m afraid it’s too late to stop it.
This summer at Exit 407 on I-40, Buc-ee’s, the convenience store phenomenon, will open what will be its largest facility in the country. At least, the largest for a short time.
The 74,000 sq foot flagship Buc-ee’s Family Travel Center, complete with 120 fueling positions, EV charging stations and a car wash over 250 feet long, will be part of a 200-acre development.
It is currently set to open this May.
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Wait. It won’t actually be the largest Buc-ee’s?
It was announced that way when the plans were revealed.
But Buc-ee’s officials recently announced plans to build a 75,000 sq foot facility back home in Texas.
Is Buc-ee’s coming to Exit 407 a bad idea?
It is not. Buc-ee’s is a wonder. I’m planning on taking a tent and camping out opening weekend just to watch the wonderful chaos unfold.
But the question I have is if the infrastructure is in place to handle it.
It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the answer is “no”.
Of course, I haven’t visited all the Buc-ee’s in the country. In fact, I haven’t even been to half of them.
However, as I’ve traveled North, South and West in the last 18 months, we made several Buc-ee’s visits. And it seemed as if Buc-ee’s was going out of its way to pick exits with little competition and plenty of room to spread out and dominate.
But it also appears that when we pass a Buc-ee’s in Sevierville, traffic is threatening to back up on the interstate.
Buc-ee’s – for all its wonders – brings traffic. And what is the one thing Exit 407 doesn’t need? Traffic.
What exit is Pigeon Forge off I-40?
Exit 407, serving Kodak, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, is one of the busier exits in the country. It handles roughly 75,000-80,000 people per day.
With what is being built at Exit 407, that traffic is going to increase, by a lot.
What else is being built at Exit 407 in Sevierville TN?
Buc-ee’s is only part of a 200-acre development on land owned by The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians called the 407 Gateway to Adventure.
The EBCI is also partnering with multiple developers on the site.
This will include the first U.S. facility from the European theme park company Puy du Fou.
In addition to the immersive experience, a walk-through attraction that highlights the role of the Cherokee tribe in World War I, the plan includes hotels, restaurants, retailers and other special attractions.
Matthew Cross, the CEO of OE Experiences, told WBIR they expect between 18,000 and 20,000 more cars coming into the 407 interchanges as early as next year because of this development.
Oh. Yeah. I think you see where this is going.
How bad will all of this be?
Have you ever tried to go East on I-40 from Exit 407 when Shadrack’s, the Christmas light show, is open?
A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of not taking the back way on the route home. As a result, I was stuck in massive traffic as people tried to reach Smokies Stadium, the exit and the gas station. It was an absolute nightmare.
Eventually, I was able to get out of the non-moving turn lane and over to the right lane. From there, I exited onto I-40 until I could find a spot to turn around.
Mercifully, Shadrack’s is fully moving to Soaky Mountain Waterpark during the winter season of next year. However, I submit to you that Buc-ee’s and 407 Gateway to Adventure is going to bring a lot more traffic to a place that is often choked with it.
What is the solution?
Short of a time machine? There’s nothing that can be done in time for Buc-ee’s opening in May 2023.
Things are going to get worse before they get better.
There has begun to be a push from stakeholders to construct a new exit – presumably Exit 408 – but that process isn’t assured and it isn’t quick.
It will involve getting a plan approved followed by engineering for the additional exit.
At that point, it would go to the Federal Highway Administration for environmental and archeological studies.
Land acquisition may be easier than normal if all the land needed is owned by the stakeholders that want the exit, but all of that has to be done before construction could even begin.
Can anything else be done with road access?
Well, yes. Sort of. But it’s also not quick. There have long been efforts by the Tennessee Department of Transportation to extend 4-lane access from Newport at I-40 Exit 432 to Sevier County via Highway 411.
Last year’s budget had $52 million dedicated to extending the four-lane from the Newport side, just past the Bush Beans plant from Highway 92 to Simms Road.
That work will take about three years and leave another six miles of work to finish the four-lane from Simms Road to the Weigel’s at Pittman Center Road.
The land acquisition phase for that is already complete. The last step is for the funds in the budget to be approved by Gov. Bill Lee.
How would a four-lane access help?
Full four-lane access from Exit 432 to Sevierville and Veterans Boulevard will give visitors from the North and East an easy – and faster – route into town.
It will relieve some of the stress at Exit 407. Will it relieve enough to offset the coming increases? I don’t know. But it would help.
How likely is either project to get approved?
The Exit 432 four-lane project will be done. It’s already approved and when the current stage is finished, all that will remain is to put the final leg in the budget.
Also, it’s important to the region that it be done.
The finished project will mean full four-lane access from Exit 432 to Dollywood via Veterans Parkway.
Dollywood currently brings in about 3 million visitors. My understanding is that with the new hotels and attractions planned, Dollywood officials believe that number will increase to 4 million annually.
Having a direct conduit from the interstate to Dollywood and the far side of Pigeon Forge will improve traffic flow throughout the region and will go a long way to ensuring the continued success of the area for decades to come.
I would imagine there is enough available funding that the final phase will start just as soon as the current one ends.
So what about Exit 408?
For the additional exit near 407, what we assume could be Exit 408, I think it’s needed. I think it’s necessary and I think that if there are enough stakeholders that want it to happen that it will.
But the Tennessee Department of Transportation isn’t going to jump just because some important people want it to.
There are procedures and policies and processes to follow. Sevier County isn’t the only county in need of major road projects. I don’t think they’re going to wave their hands and let Sevier County jump the line.
The truth is, I don’t see how the planners and developers involved got this far into the process before turning to the state for the new exit. I would have thought it would have been part of the planning from the beginning.
Are there any other major new interchanges or roads planned?
Not that I’m aware of, though I imagine somewhere there’s a plan to expand the roads through Cosby to get easier access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park without going through Pigeon Forge.
But that would be a long, long way off.
What do you think about the interstate developments? Let us know in the comments below.