Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Tennessee's roads don't lead to open state parks, better schools
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   11/30/2001)

It's an old-fashioned political brawl.

Gov. Don Sundquist and the powerful highways lobby against you and me and Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe--at least that's how some of us see it.

Ashe lobbies the state to transfer money from the bloated Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) with its $1.4 billion budget, to help our struggling schools and parks.

Sundquist tells Ashe to take care of Knoxville and butt out of how the state spends its money.

Ashe responds that every Tennessean has a stake in how taxpayers' money is spent, and that too much is being lavished on roads, while everything else--such as parks and schools--goes begging.

Ashe is right on this. Let's you and him and me start a movement.

On second thought, looks like we already have. On Wednesday, City Council gave Ashe a vote of moral support for his position.

Already citizens groups in South Knoxville had expressed appreciation to Ashe for speaking out against a proposed four-lane highway connector through their neighborhood. Chances are TDOT will ignore their wishes and push that community-devouring road through anyway. But the point is, voices have been raised. Others are chiming in all across the state.

There's a musical phrase heard in the land these days: "A Penny for Parks."

It's the slogan for a group calling itself "Tennesseans for State Parks."

The group came up with "A Penny for Parks" after reading a statement Ashe made sometime back to the effect that one penny from the 21.4 cents per gallon gasoline tax--now dedicated by law to building bridges and roads--could raise more than $30 million and save every park in Tennessee with money left over.

Environmental and conservation groups are signing on to "A Penny for Parks" in droves.

If enough start speaking out, they might yet convince Sundquist to go along.

After all, he's not that far from being an environmental hero. He's done as much to preserve and buy open lands in Tennessee as most anyone. On the other hand, he's shut down Tennessee parks at a faster clip than anyone.

And while beautiful parks are closing, and while our schools are settling to the bottom of a deep fiscal well, and TennCare goes farther in the hole, Tennessee remains number one at something.

Ashe put his finger on it recently, "We are first in asphalt and last in education. That is not what our priorities should be." But I guess everybody needs to be Number One at something, and if Tennessee doesn't figure out a way to beat Florida, that leaves, well, building roads nobody much wants.

Like the new four-lane being pushed through Townsend. Somebody tell me how this pork got approved? Or like the one protested roundly for months that is still going in between the University of Tennessee main campus and the agriculture campus. Or take the new super-duper Interstate loop going in around Nashville, slated to cost billions, and already charged with wreaking havoc on the environment. There are dozens more.

In fact, according to Tennesseans for State Parks, one of TDOT's goals is to connect every county seat in Tennessee to an Interstate via a four-lane road (95 total).

Why? By what logic?

And so a pattern develops. Hearings are held. Citizens speak out against yet another new highway through their backyards. A couple of years pass, and then one day orange cones--newest candidate for official Tennessee State Tree--are all in a row and highway construction is under way. The wishes of citizens at all those open meetings are roundly ignored.

Not that Ashe is against roads per se. He's just for a little more symmetry.

Right now the system is asymmetrical, to use a word often heard in fashion jargon. Used that way it means someone's hair is higher on one side than the other, or a skirt is longer in back than in front, usually deliberately.

Hey, Tennessee, your slip is showing. Great roads. Lousy parks and schools. The look is unbecoming.

But changing the look is not that expensive. If done soon--before more park rangers are laid off and their houses boarded up, for instance--it might not even prove that expensive politically for Sundquist and state legislators.

A Penny for Parks? How about pennies for parks? For schools? A penny here and there from the $1.4 billion gas fund and pretty soon you're talking about real money. You're still talking about millions for road builders. But you're also talking about millions for the rest of us.

Speak out. For numbers and addresses of state legislators and other officials, as well as budget analyses and more, visit the Tennessee homepage at It's proof the state is capable of listening, but first you have to speak out.