VOL. 41 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 26, 2017
440 fast track
By Kathy Carlson
Now that the ink has dried on the IMPROVE Act, the state law that raises additional funds for transportation projects, the real work begins – building roads, fixing bridges, easing traffic and boosting safety.
Which of the 962 projects outlined in the law are ready to go, right now, and where and when can drivers start seeing improvements?
The answers are beginning to emerge.
The short answer:
-- I-440 in Nashville
-- Alcoa Highway in Knoxville
-- I-75/I-24 split in Chattanooga
-- Widening of U.S. 78 in Shelby County
Those projects have gotten a big green light for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year.
The long answer:
Projects will be spread out over a 12- to 14-year time horizon, with priorities unfolding over time.
And the IMPROVE Act is more than state highway projects. The phased-in 6-cent hike in gasoline taxes – plus other revenue sources – creates a new pool of transportation infrastructure funding for counties and cities.
“The last time there was a comparable piece of legislation similar to (the IMPROVE Act) was in 1986,” says Paul Degges, chief engineer with the state Department of Transportation.
In 1986, the last year of then-Gov. Lamar Alexander’s administration, the state passed the Better Roads Program, a 13-year, $3.3 billion program that funded six interstate-type projects including I-840.
The Broadway bridge spanning 11th Avenue South and the CSX railroad tracks in downtown Nashville is slated for more than $5 million in repairs. -- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger
General Motors had announced the year before that it would be building cars in Spring Hill, and Nissan had been operating its Smyrna car plant since 1983. The Better Roads Program was the state’s biggest highway program to date.
The last big year for bridges was 2009. That year, the state passed legislation authorizing work on 200 state bridges. Degges says that measure “pales in comparison” to the 526 locally owned bridges singled out for repairs in the IMPROVE Act.
A plan for tackling local bridge work should be completed and released in June, Degges adds. The new state fiscal year starts on July 1 and extends to June 30, 2018.
Looking at transportation projects year-by-year, TDOT works from three-year plans built on longer-term state plans that take into consideration the needs of local communities. A little over half of the budget for the state’s major roads comes from the federal government, so Tennessee’s highway priorities also are guided by the work of federally created regional transportation groups such as the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization or MPO.
“These were not new projects we just dreamed up,” State Rep. Barry Doss, R-Leoma, says of the projects listed in the IMPROVE Act. Many have been on a state backlog list, which means that they are works in progress for which the state has already spent money, be it for engineering, buying rights of way or actual construction.
Doss, from Lawrence County in rural southern Middle Tennessee, carried the IMPROVE Act for Gov. Haslam in the House. Doss, chair of the House Transportation Committee, is president of a construction company that can handle site preparation and paving. He says the governor “knew I was raised up doing grading and paving so I understand that material.”
Doss adds that without the revenues from the IMPROVE Act, it would have taken 25 years to complete the 962 projects. The new law cuts that to about 12 years, he points out.
The state unveiled its latest three-year transportation plan earlier this month. It covers the 2018, 2019 and 2020 fiscal years and details $2.6 billion in spending on 101 individual project phases in 40 counties, plus 15 statewide programs. The dollar figure includes both state and federal funds.
In Middle Tennessee, the plan calls for a total of 17 projects in these counties in FY 2018: Bedford (2), Cheatham (1, counted with Davidson), Davidson (4), Dickson (1 counted with Davidson and 1 counted with Hickman), Fentress and Pickett (1), Hickman (1), Montgomery (1), Moore (1), Rutherford (1), Sequatchie-Bledsoe (1), Sumner-Davidson (1), Williamson (2 plus 1 counted with Davidson), Wilson (2, plus one counted with Davidson).
Eight projects will see construction during FY 18: one in Bedford, one in Rutherford and two each in Davidson, Williamson and Wilson counties. The others are in the planning phase.
TDOT says highway priorities are guided by considerations of safety, traffic congestion and economic development. “About half of the (criteria are) related to safety – crash data, average daily traffic, percentage of trucks,” Degges notes.
“We are also looking at what I call the priorities from local governments. How does the MPO or RPO view the priority of these projects?”
The Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally designated group that plans, sets priorities and selects transportation projects for federal funding. (Areas with populations of more than 200,000 have MPOs, Degges explains. RPOs or rural planning organizations operate in less-populated areas.)
The Nashville Area MPO serves more than 1.5 million people in Davidson, Maury, Robertson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties – more than 3,000 square miles, Michelle Lacewell, its interim director, says, responding via email.
“Each year, TDOT requests local communities work with their respective MPO to develop a list of regional transportation priorities as part of the department’s process to develop the three-year work program,” Lacewell says.
The final 3-year work program is presented to the Tennessee General Assembly as part of the state’s budget.
Federal law also charges MPOs with developing a regional transportation plan (RTP) every five years, and that plan has to look forward 25 years, Lacewell explains. “Our current plan was adopted in 2016 and it directs federal funds to projects and programs across the region.”
It covers the entire transportation structure, not just roads, and calls among other things for upgrading “the aging interstate loop in downtown Nashville and improving state routes in “fast-growing areas of Maury, Robertson, Williamson and Wilson counties.”
Under the I-65 bridge and Cowan Street -- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger
In addition to working with MPOs and RPOs, state DOT officials also tour the state annually to visit individual communities and learn what locals identify as needs.
Beyond safety and the judgment of local governments on which projects are most important, “you have to look at the schedules,” Degges adds.
If 200 rights-of-way (pieces of land along the proposed route) need to be purchased, that project isn’t ready for spending in the current fiscal year even though planners may consider it most important.
“Funding that [project] doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “(Budgeted) dollars would lose their buying power to inflation” before construction could begin.
Other practical problems need to be factored into priorities. “If I have a community where the top two priorities are in parallel corridors,” meaning one road would take up the traffic routed off the one under construction, those two projects will be done at separate times, Degges points out.
In addition, there’s a limited number of construction companies that can do the work, he adds.
“If I put three big, giant projects in the same (bid) letting, we won’t have enough competition among bidders to keep down prices.”
TDOT spreads the money across the state as well, he continues. “West Tennessee doesn’t mean Memphis, East Tennessee doesn’t stop in Knoxville, and Nashville doesn’t get everything. We don’t want to make parts of the state feel disenfranchised” in the allocation of road projects.
Generally, higher-population areas will see more highway money, but rural areas will see big projects as well, such as the $400 million spent to build I-26 through rural Unicoi County to connect I-81 to Asheville, North Carolina.
“We’re not going to spend $400 million in Unicoi County every year,” Degges says.
“Over time, we are making investments over 10- to 15-year time frames that are appropriate. Nashville and Middle Tennessee has a higher population density (so it) makes sense that over time you are going to see more spending where there’s more population,” he says.
And it’s not just highways. Rural legislators and highway administrators see the IMPROVE Act as bringing much-needed funding to cities and counties, which are responsible for maintaining the roads they own.
Doss, the state representative from Lawrence County, says his main goal in advocating for the bill was to increase funding available to rural counties to maintain their roads.
“A lot of people think all of that money is going to the state,” he says.
About 60 percent of IMPROVE Act revenues will go to TDOT, but 28 percent will go to counties and 12.5 percent to cities.
Rural counties often cover many square miles that are spanned by many miles of county roads, but have relatively few taxpaying residents. A small percentage of county and city roads – perhaps 10 percent – are eligible for state funds, but most are local government’s responsibility.
Rutherford County, south of Nashville, has a mix of urban and rural areas. “The lion’s share of our funding comes from the collection of gas tax revenues,” says Greg Brooks, road superintendent.
The increased revenue from the IMPROVE Act will help county highway departments fund day-to-day operations, Brooks says.
These funds are unrestricted and county highway departments will be able to set their own priorities and use the money for equipment, staff or materials, for example.
There will be some lag time between when people start paying the additional fuel tax and when county roads departments will see the increased funds. “We’ve been told it will lag one month,” Brooks says. “In September we could see the money.”
But Brooks isn’t counting any proverbial chickens. He says his department’s proposed FY 2018 budget won’t include any possible bump in revenues from the IMPROVE Act.
State Rep. Doss knows from personal experience that relief is needed on the roadways.
When the legislature is in session, Doss drives two hours each way from home to Nashville. “I see the traffic on Saturn Parkway, 440 and 840 and I-65,” he says. “… To get on 65 (from Saturn Parkway) sometimes takes me half an hour. …
“We’re anticipated to have an additional 1 million residents in Middle Tennessee in the next 10 years,” he continues. Without additional projects, “it probably will do nothing but get worse and worse.”