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TDOT Commissioner: More long-term planning, funding needed

Associated Press

GRAY – Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer wants to roll out the state’s first comprehensive transportation building plan for the first time since Lamar Alexander was governor 30 years ago.Still, several road projects in Greene County may be waiting a long time before they get funding, comments from Schroer indicated Wednesday.

Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer was in Gray to present the state’s transportation outlook to area leaders in the 1st Congressional District.Among the topics Schroer touched upon was the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s backlogged projects and those projects that have been identified as needs. According to TDOT, there are four projects on the backlog list directly impacting Greene County. Backlogged projects are those that have been approved by the Tennessee General Assembly and are currently under development.The local backlogged projects include the paving of the Greeneville Bypass from 11E west of Greeneville to 11E east of Greeneville. The estimated cost of this project is $24.2 million.The other three backlogged projects that would have a direct local impact all include construction along U.S. 321, from the Cocke County line to U.S. 11E, and the total estimated cost of these three projects is $81.2 million.Six projects identified as needs but not currently under development.

Most of these six projects pertain to bridge construction, including bridge construction along the Blue Ridge Parkway over Lick Creek. The estimated cost of that project is $2.857 million.Others include the bridge construction along East Church Street, bridge construction along Paint Mountain Road over Lower Paint Creek, and construction along Link Mills Road over Richland Creek, which in total are estimated to cost approximately $1.5 million.Another identified need is bridge construction along the Newport Highway over the Nolichucky River, estimated to cost $9.731 million.The last identified need within Greene County’s borders is the renovation of the rest area located along Interstate 81, estimated to cost $3.75 million.According to Schroer’s presentation, there are 107 identified needs within the district, and these projects would cost an estimated $680 million.

The district includes Greene, Carter, Cocke, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties, as well as parts of Jefferson and Sevier counties.”These are just projects that we’ve identified as specific needs and that will be part of a long-term comprehensive building plan,” Schroer said. Schroer said wear and tear on state roadways continues, increased by a growing population. With inflation, the cost of doing business is also a challenge, Schroer said.”I’ve got the same problems you have,” Schroer said to the local-level officials present. “I just have more zeroes behind my problems. But the problems are just the same. We’ve got more assets to maintain and less money to do it, so we’re struggling to stay up.”

Tennessee’s current fuel tax rate is 21.4 percent, which Schroer said has not changed since 1989. One penny of the fuel tax represents approximately $31.6 million, Schroer said.Schroer also said there are $6 billion worth of projects on TDOT’s backlog list. He said without additional money raised for state transportation, it would take until the year 2034 to complete the projects on this list.”If 2034 is OK with you, then we’re OK with that and we’ll just not talk about this anymore,” Schroer said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

He added that without additional transportation dollars, state transportation officials “won’t even start looking” at the projects on the identified needs list until around 2025. Tennessee is one of only five states in the country that have not taken prior or pending action on transportation funding. Schroer said Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed a funding bill for the next fiscal year budget, which should pass this week, and state officials are going to look at rolling out a comprehensive transportation building plan.

Last week, TDOT unveiled its three-year plan. Schroer said the comprehensive plan will represent the first such action with regards to Tennessee transportation in three decades. The last, he said, was then-Gov. Lamar Alexander’s 1986 roads program.

“Thirty years ago this year was the last time we had a vision on transportation,” Schroer said. “… I don’t know about you, but I think 30 years is long enough to go without a transportation road improvement plan.”

Schroer also described Tennessee as a “fix it first” state, as there seems to be contentment over repairing what is already in place before building new infrastructure. He said the state needs to be more proactive in its approach.”I want to make sure we as a state don’t wait too long,” he said.