By Pam Sohn
On Friday afternoons, it takes Carol Underwood as long as 40 minutes to drive about 15 miles along Interstate 24 during her daily commute from her job in East Brainerd to her Lookout Valley home.
"That's just the 5 o'clock traffic," she said. "It's horrible."
Like thousands of other daily I-24 travelers through Chattanooga, Mrs. Underwood accepts the drive as part of living and working where she wishes.
"We're not going to change careers," said Mrs. Underwood, who works in banking.
Three spots in Hamilton County, along I-24 and U.S. 27 in downtown Chattanooga, are listed among Tennessee's top 30 congested interstate areas.
Mrs. Underwood's commute may be likely to get worse before it gets better.
Although I-24 traffic snarls from the 1-75/I-24 split into the heart of Chattanooga ranks the area No. 9 among the state's most congested, tentatively planned improvements may be stalled. Widening plans now penciled in between 2021 and 2030 could become complicated by the state's projected $2 billion shortfall in road work money by 2015, Tennessee Department of Transportation officials said.
Improvements to the section of road ranking No. 30, I-24 from Browns Ferry Road to the U.S. 27/I-24 split, are not scheduled at all. And the stretch of road on U.S. 27 from I-24 to 4th Street, ranking 26, is on the transportation department's tentative plan for work to be done from 2011 to 2020, but the shortfall could affect that work, too.
"Our highway infrastructure is aging, but the cost to maintain it is going up, and the income from federal and state revenue streams is fairly flat," said Ed Cole, chief of environment and planning for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Julie Oaks, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the $2 billion shortfall is a projected figure, but highway officials already are seeing the effect.
"The gap (between needs and income) has started to grow," she said.
Chattanooga isn't the only city whose drivers are facing longer commutes on aging roads.
Metro Nashville and Davidson County have 21 of the top 30 congested interstate passages, according to transportation department reports.
State officials have said Tennessee will begin facing highway deficits in 2008, reach the $2 billion shortfall by 2015 and have a $16 billion gap by 2030.
Georgia expects a $74 billion gap by 2035.
The nation's Federal Highway Trust Fund -- which allocates federal fuel tax collections as construction and maintenance money to states -- expects a $2.3 billion deficit within the next three years.
Tennessee's $2 billion projected shortfall "assumed a federal revenue stream that would continue at about the same level," Mr. Cole said.
"A lot of people think the federal money may bail you out, but there is not going to be that federal cushion unless there are some changes," he said.
DRIVING INTO THE FUTURE
Mr. Cole said the state's long-range plan offers three options for road planners to consider in coming years. Those options are conservation, higher taxes and user fees in the form of toll roads.
"The solutions are a mix of these three strategies," he said.
At least one Tennessee lawmaker wants to put state travel in high gear.
Rep. Phillip Pinion, D-Union City and chairman of the state House Transportation Committee, favors the toll road proposal.
"I've got legislation being prepared to allow us to do toll roads, either state ones or through public-private partnerships," he said. "I will present it in January."
In public-private ventures, investors would build the roads and lease agreements would allocate a percentage of the toll income to the state, said Rep. Pinion, who is attending a conference in Texas this week about toll roads.
He said he wants the state to look specifically at new toll-road construction, not just designating existing roads as tollways. Both the lawmaker and Mr. Cole said such pay-as-you-drive options must have non-pay alternatives to provide drivers with a choice.
"If you want to travel faster, you can take the toll road," Rep. Pinion said. "If not, there are existing roads that are free."
Raising the state's gasoline tax, now 20 cents a gallon plus a 1.4 cent special petroleum fee, also would require legislation and approval by the Tennessee legislators.
In October, Gov. Phil Bredesen said he would not rule out raising the state's gasoline tax if it was necessary to get matching federal funds for highway work.
But Rep. Pinion said he opposes increasing the gasoline tax, for almost the same reason.
"With gas prices fluctuating and people buying smaller cars, we still may not be able to ensure we'll get enough (revenue from the gas tax.) We might not have enough money to be able to match federal money that's available."
Mr. Cole said the state already pushes conservation, and that effort will increase with carpool lanes and park-and-ride van pools. The state's plan calls for putting some $800 million toward conservation efforts.
Mr. Cole said conservation, ironically, is a two-edged sword. Fewer cars on the road means lower gas tax receipts.
"As we urge people to conserve -- and we do -- it negatively impacts revenue," he said.
Meanwhile, the state has a toll-road study under way that looks at other states' experiences and what legislation is needed. Mr. Cole said toll lanes just for trucks also are a possibility.
For now, highway planners are trying to ease congestion with the state's SmartWay intelligent transportation system of cameras, roadside message boards, 511 phone messages about traffic conditions and HELP trucks.
Mr. Cole said almost 60 percent of congestion is the result of accidents, road work zones and other one-time highway problems that SmartWay's information system can help with.
But with the U.S. Census Bureau projecting 40 percent more people in the Volunteer State over the next 25 years, planners know those measures won't be enough.
Karen Rhodes, transportation planning coordinator with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, said local planners already have prioritized work on I-24, as well as U.S. 27 from I-24 to the Olgiati Bridge. Without that prioritization, state roadwork projects on those highways won't get federal matching money.
"We always have more projects than we have funds," she said.
E-mail Pam Sohn at email@example.com