Tennessee's transportation chief pledged Tuesday that the $22.5 million widening of Apison Pike -- seen as key for McKee Foods and easing Collegedale area traffic tie-ups -- will go forward despite federal funding worries.
But, plans to extend the highway to East Brainerd Road could run into problems unless the shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund is cleared up, said state Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer.
That's not the only huge Hamilton County project that could be affected.
The planned improvements to U.S. 27 in downtown Chattanooga from Olgiati Bridge to Interstate 24 could fall victim to that same shortfall, officials said.
The widening of U.S. 27 between the bridge and Signal Mountain Road got under way in late 2011, with completion currently scheduled for February 2015. Meanwhile, the work has affected thousands of commuters daily and resulted in the building of 34 retaining walls and six bridges.
The original cost estimate was $80 million. Costs currently stand at $102 million.
Tom Francescon, who is involved with the North Chattanooga Council of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said delaying work on U.S. 27 from the bridge to I-24 could hurt downtown's growth.
"I'm hopeful some sort of funding is put into place to complete that project," he said. "It's definitely needed and probably should have been done before now."
Schroer said the state is "moving forward as if we've got the money but planning as if we don't. If funding is interrupted or non-existent, it does create a huge issue."
"In about 30 days the trust fund will be broke," Schroer said as he readied to board a vehicle to see the Apison Pike expansion route and a planned connector between Highway 58 and I-75 near the Volkswagen plant. "It has huge consequences across the country."
Schroer said plans are to award bids in late summer for widening Apison Pike from two to four lanes from Old Lee Highway to just beyond Ooltewah-Ringgold Road. He said funding for that work is already obligated.
He told a small delegation from McKee Foods that he'd like to go right into extending Apison Pike to East Brainerd Road, a project earlier estimated at about $42 million. But, Schroer said that's one of a number of state projects in jeopardy due to the trust fund shortage.
Connie Vaughan, of McKee Foods' government relations office, said the snack-food maker's trucks use the narrow two-lane Apison Pike and its widening is important to the company and the Collegedale area to help traffic and improve safety.
"It's a congestion issue for us," she said. Estimates are that it will take two years to finish the widening to Ooltewah-Ringgold Road.
Jack McKee, the retired former chief executive of the company that employs about 3,000 people in the county, cited the state's commitment to the Apison Pike project's next phase and said TDOT is "receptive to keeping us informed and responding to all the questions."
State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, quipped that the people checking out the road projects with the commissioner were "a trust-but-verify group."
Concerning the federal trust fund situation, the Senate speaker pro tempore said officials are looking at options available to them. Watson said the big question about finding a solution is whether it ends the fundamental problem.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., unveiled a bipartisan proposal to shore up the trust fund by raising federal gas and diesel taxes for the first time in more than two decades. It would hike the current 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax and 24.4 cent-per-gallon tax on diesel by 12 cents over the next two years.
The tax would be pegged to inflation to avoid future shortfalls. To offset the higher fuel revenues, the proposal brought with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would offer net tax relief for families and businesses.
Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, said the trust fund provides more than half of the nation's spending on transportation projects, resulting in a potential 50 percent reduction in Tennessee's roads budget in 2015. Countrywide, the problem would create a $160 billion hole in state budgets over the next decade and imperil 660,000 jobs next year.
Schroer said Corker's idea and comments have brought the trust fund issue to the nation's forefront.
"Congress is starting to pay attention," he said.
The TDOT commissioner said the state is in better shape than some others because it doesn't have any transportation debt.
Still, he said, it's "critical to have consistent long-term funding when building road projects."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.