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VOL. 40 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 8, 2016

I-440 one of many projects on unfunded backlog

By Hollie Deese

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When Governor Haslam released his list of proposed road projects for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, replacing the pavement and improving the safety of I-440 was on the list with an estimated price tag of $50 million.

But that doesn’t mean the Tennessee Department of Transportation is ready to contract work on the road any time soon.

Redoing I-440 is just one of dozens of proposed interstate, bridge and tunnel projects on the new list that all together come in at $5.1 billion dollars.

“Last summer into the early fall, Governor Haslam and (TDOT) Commissioner [John] Schroer went on a road tour talking to different communities about their transportation needs,” says BJ Doughty, TDOT director of community relations and communications “We developed a list of new project needs based on all of the conversations that we had in these different places.”

But that list is in addition to the $6.1 billion dollar backlog of projects that have been approved by the Tennessee General Assembly and are all in some phase of completion.

“440 is on the list, which is about $5.1 billion dollars’ worth of new project needs that aren’t even really projects for us yet because we don’t have the available funding,” Doughty explains.

Tennessee is a pay-as-you-go state with no road debt, so the state relies heavily on fuel taxes to fund its highways instead of debt financing, road tolls or general fund revenues. The state gas tax has been 21.4 cents per gallon since 1990, and the diesel gas tax is 18.4 cents.

Of the tax, 7.9 cents goes to local governments. TDOT gets 12.8 cents, and the other .7 goes the state general fund.

That means projects on the new list won’t be getting off the ground for years, and Doughty says TDOT officials are not in a position to talk about other possible funding options right now since Governor Haslam has stated he won’t push the gas tax issue this session. Lawmakers aim to adjourn by April 15.

“We didn’t need somebody to tell us that something needs to be done about 440,” Doughty says. “If we addressed transportation funding, [then] we have not just 440, but an additional $5 billion dollars’ worth of projects that communities want across the state that aren’t even in our backlog.”

Keeping quality up

A report from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury released January 2015 provided an overview of Tennessee’s current financing system for highways and bridges, outlined challenges to the existing system and reviewed alternative funding methods.

It highlighted that Tennessee’s per capita revenue for highways in 2010 was the lowest of the 50 states although the roads are generally rated as being of good quality. Tennessee ranked fourth in the percentage of roads in good condition.

But aging concrete roads like I-440 will soon become an issue that needs to be dealt with.

“If we don’t address funding for transportation, you’re going to see more facilities like 440 over time,” says Paul Degges, TDOT’s chief engineer.

“Nashville is a very booming economy right now. I think a smooth pavement on 440 would help our city shine.”

Motorists such as author and photographer Jerry Park agree it is time to make roads a priority, no matter the cost. For a growing city like Nashville, he considers tackling traffic and road conditions just as important as improving public education and affordable housing. If we don’t, he says they are game-stoppers.

“I know it would be a hugely expensive thing, but I think you either go ahead and admit the mistake, bite the bullet, redo it and do it right, or we’re going to be having the same conversation ten years from now,” Park says.

Last month, a bill proposing private sector investments for transportation projects statewide was narrowed to only include transit projects such as light rail, specifically excluding roads. Before it was amended the bill would have included tunnels, bridges and highways projects, but now there is no chance the backlog of projects will be funded in a partnership with private sector companies.

Still, Park is ready to look at alternative options for redoing the road that goes beyond the ‘will-they won’t-they’ conversations about raising the gas tax –­– conversations that never really go anywhere.

“When you have a problem that is easily identifiable, it’s so different than saying, ‘Hey we believe in mass transit, so we’re going to do this and just trust us, 10 years from now you’ll be happy we did it,’” Park points out.

“That’s easy to say no to. But something that is actually causing pain and expense right now and there is no quick solution, I really think that they would get pretty good public support.”

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