published Monday, February 10th, 2014

Shortfalls put Tennessee road projects at risk

TDOT projects

400: Number of projects currently under construction

400: Number of projects under development

750: Number of projects under consideration for funding

CLOSER TO HOME

Here are just a few of the local projects planned for fiscal 2014-2017 that would be built with 80 percent federal funding. That funding could be imperiled if Congress doesn't solve the Highway Trust Fund shortfall.

* 2015: Realign part of Hickory Valley Road at Enterprise South, $16 million

* 2016: Build shoulders and safety improvements on Hunter, Snowhill and Standifer Gap roads, $2.3 million

* 2016: Extend the Riverwalk on Manufacturers Road to Hamm Road, $2.5 million

* 2017: Extend Central Avenue from East Third Street to Riverside Drive, $7.4 million

To see a complete list projects in the 2014-17 local transportation plan, go to www.chcrpa.org/TPO_reorganized/Plans_and_Programs/TIP.htm and click on Final 2014-2017 Transportation Improvement Program.

FRANKLIN, Tenn. — The federal Highway Trust Fund's $15 billion shortfall is so severe that without action from Congress, major road projects around the nation and in Tennessee could get stuck on the drawing board.

The shortfall could mean a $900 million cut to the Tennessee Department of Transportation's budget, a move that could spark across-the-board reductions, shelve road projects and scuttle ride-sharing programs.

"We are facing some dire straits in how we fund transportation across the nation," TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said. "The very thing that this country was built on, which is good transportation, is at risk at this point in time."

TDOT has 400 projects under development plus 750 local projects that state officials are exploring for possible funding. That's in addition to an estimated $8 billion in a years-long backlog of road projects.

Paul Degges, TDOT chief engineer and deputy commissioner, said the loss of the federal money would not stop projects already under way, but it would mean planned or proposed projects would gather dust.

In Williamson County, a proposed extension of Mack Hatcher Parkway from Hillsboro Road to Highway 96 West that officials and residents have been waiting to get funded would likely go no further than TDOT engineers' drawing board.

Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson recently met with Schroer about the project and came away with no guarantees.

"There's a big a hole in the dollars and cents that's coming from Washington, D.C.," Anderson said.

In the Chattanooga area, TDOT and local planners have dozens of projects in development. The agency also is developing plans to rebuild the Interstate 75-I-24 intersection, to improve I-75 north and I-24 west and to expand transit options in Chattanooga area, all projects that will depend heavily on federal funding.

2 budgets prepared

Schroer said the cuts seem so certain that he has taken an unusual precaution for 2015: He prepared one budget for the agency that accounts for federal money and one without. Without the federal funding, TDOT's budget would be pared from $1.8 billion to about $900 million.

It's a financial time-bomb scenario that Schroer and other national transportation experts say needs attention by Congress, which must somehow find an additional $15 billion for the federal Highway Trust Fund by Oct. 1 for the nation's road-building agencies to continue as normal.

By later this year, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the federal Highway Trust Fund will not have enough cash to cover its debts.

The fund's operation has been a concern for years among transportation experts because of its reliance on gasoline taxes for its money. While road-building costs and needs have surged, the gasoline tax rate of 18.3 cents per gallon hasn't changed since 1993.

"Long-term as a country, we can't keep funding roads the way we do now," Gov. Bill Haslam told The Tennessean editorial board. "I think that is true of Tennessee, too."

For Tennesseans, the gasoline tax currently costs about $300 a year for someone who drives around 15,000 miles a year in a vehicle that averages 18 to 20 miles per gallon, according to TDOT figures.

"Think about what you pay for your cellphone every year," TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said. "Think about what you pay for your cable or your satellite every year."

There's some momentum to increase the gasoline tax. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has proposed an increase of 15 cents per gallon.

Groups like the Washington, D.C.-based transportation nonprofit the American Highways Users Alliance say a tax increase for highway users is the fairest way to raise money for the fund.

"The question is whether politicians are courageous enough to be honest about the situation with the American people and make the case that you don't get something for nothing," said Gregory M. Cohen, the alliance's president.

Painful choices

Whether that idea has traction with Tennessee leaders remains to be seen.

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who is a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

Haslam said he isn't sure a gas tax hike is the answer.

"We are going to have to have a whole different approach to funding roads," he said.

Solving the problem will ultimately come down to facing painful financial choices, regardless.

"It's hard for (Congress) to find $15 billion because they've got to find a corresponding $15 billion takeaway," Schroer said.

Schroer has spoken out recently about the situation and is trying to raise public awareness, something that is problematic since Tennessee's roads are generally considered in good shape.

Lyndsay Botts, Schroer's chief of staff, points out that Tennessee last year was ranked No. 2 for infrastructure by CNBC in its annual "Top States For Business" study.

"There isn't a true call to action for possibly our state and local and federal leaders to do anything because their constituency isn't seeing the problem," Botts said.

Reach Kevin Walters at 615-771-5472 and on Twitter@thekevinwalters.

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