Tennessee motorists began paying an extra 4 cents per gallon in fuel taxes in July as part of the first increase in Tennessee's gasoline tax in nearly three decades.
The benefits — or at least the initial road construction funded by the higher taxes — should soon be seen across the Chattanooga region as the Tennessee Department of Transportation begins to work through more than $10.5 billion of its backlog of road projects across the state.
In addition to highway widenings, bridge replacements and plans for a new Appalachian Regional Commission highway corridor near the Ocoee River, the most visible project in the Chattanooga region from the new funding plan involves the construction of a new interchange at the intersection of Interstate 75 and Interstate 24.
A contract to design and reconstruct the I-24/I-75 split from the blueprint stage to the last lane stripe will be awarded in fiscal year 2018, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer says.
The interchange, just north of the Tennessee-Georgia line in Chattanooga, handles an estimated 124,000 vehicles passing through daily in an area notorious for its traffic jams. The project is expected to use "flyover ramp" designs — much like those in Memphis' I-40/I-240 interchange — to allow traffic traveling in different directions to pass at varying levels.
Here are some of the Chattanooga and regional projects Gov. Bill Haslam says will benefit under the IMPROVE Act:
* Interstate 24: Beginning at I-59 on the Georgia line, 10.3-mile project would widen I-24 to U.S. 27 in downtown Chattanooga. Estimated cost: $171.5 million.
* Rebuild interchange of I-75 and I-24 in Brainerd and East Ridge. Estimated cost: $65 million
* Upgrade interchanges on I-24 at Broad Street and Market Street to rework ramps and improve access from I-24 to the Southside. Estimated cost: $37 million.
* I-75: Interchange modification at Hamilton Place mall: $40 million.
* Work on six I-24 bridges, including over Rossville Boulevard ($6.2 million), eastbound lanes over Broad Street ($4.2 million), over old Southern Railway lines ($2.9 million), over Germantown Road ($3.2 million), over Central Avenue ($4.6 million) and Williams Street ($3 million).
* Widen Ooltewah-Ringgold Road from Apison Pike to East Brainerd Road. Estimated cost for the 4.4 mile project is $56.7 million.
* Widen Bonny Oaks Drive near Enterprise South from Industry Drive to Adamson Circle: $8.3 million. From Adamson Circle to west of Bonnyshire Drive: $20.7 million. From Bonnyshire Drive to I-75: $21.2 million.
* Widen eight miles of SR 30 from U.S. 27 to west of Tennessee River bridge. Estimated cost: $44.1 million.
* Widen North Lee Highway from near Anatole Lane to SR 308 in Charleston: $36.8 million.
* Widen I-75 from Cleveland urban boundary to Bradley/McMinn county line: $26.2 million.
* Preliminary engineering for widening 8.8 miles of I-75 from exit 11 to exit 20. Includes a significant amount of work in Hamilton County. Estimated Cost: $95 million
* Ocoee River Gorge bypass. Phase 1 is a 23-mile stretch costing an estimated $300 million; Phase 2 is a $200 million project involving 2.1 miles through mountainous terrain.
* Upgrade of Old Washington Highway from U.S. 27 to west of the Tennessee River bridge, 8.1 miles. Estimated cost: $44.1 million
Source: Tennessee Department of Transportation
The new interchange is one of 962 projects across the state that the extra fuel taxes from the IMPROVE Act should help speed to completion. The act also identifies 526 locally owned bridges across Tennessee.
"If the IMPROVE Act had not been passed, we could be talking 20, 30 years or even more before those projects would be done," TDOT spokesperson Mark Nagi says. "With the passage of the IMPROVE Act, we're looking to have all of those projects either complete, under construction or under contract within the next 13 to 14 years."
Although the gas tax hike was less that what Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam first proposed, the final tax plan increases the tax on regular gasoline in Tennessee by 6 cents and diesel fuel by 10 cents over three years. The gas tax increases are balanced out, in part with a cut in the sales taxes on groceries from 5 percent to 4 percent, shaving the cost of every $100 spent on groceries by $1, and by tax cuts for businesses, including a gradual phase-out of the Hall Income Tax.
The Transportation Coalition of Tennessee said the total impact for the IMPROVE Act for Hamilton County is nearly $511.8 million, including state projects and revenue sharing with cities and counties.
Susie Alcorn, executive director of the Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance, which backed more spending on Tennessee roads and bridges, called the tax plan "the fiscally responsible way to fund transportation infrastructure projects, using an increase in the user fee offset by giving Tennessee residents the largest tax cut in our state's history."
"The increase in the user fees means Tennessee residents won't shoulder the entire burden alone, as revenue will be captured from visiting tourists and the trucks that move goods through the state," Alcorn says. "This continues Tennessee's history as a pay-as-you-go state, meaning the people who use the roads pay for their upkeep."
As part of the IMPROVE Act, manufacturing companies will have the option to use a single weighted sales factor, which will make Tennessee more competitive when recruiting new manufacturing companies and jobs, Gov. Haslam said.
The change was key to landing Nokian Tyres in Dayton, Tennessee, in the biggest foreign direct investment in Rhea County's history. The Finnish tire maker plans to create at least 400 new jobs and invest $360 million in the facility.
"The recent passage of the IMPROVE Act played a critical role in attracting this great company to Tennessee," Haslam says.