Shrinking federal funds could cut into efforts to make state highways larger and safer, Tennessee's top transportation engineer said Friday in Chattanooga.
The state spends its own highway money mostly on maintenance and depends on Uncle Sam to deliver dollars for new roads, new lanes and better highway access, said Paul Degges, chief engineer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
When there's a federal funding crunch, "for the most part, big new initiatives are the most difficult projects to move forward," Degges told members of the Southeast Tennessee Political Action Committee over lunch Friday.
And there are plenty of big initiatives just ahead in Chattanooga, Degges told the SETPAC audience at the DoubleTree Hotel.
TDOT saved up for years for the upcoming widening and reconstruction of U.S. Highway 27 from the Olgiati Bridge to Signal Mountain Road, so that's already paid for, he said.
But early next year, the state expects to begin buying land to widen Apison Pike in Collegedale and eventually to East Brainerd Road.
And engineering work has just started on rebuilding the dangerous tangle at the junction of Interstates 75 and 24.
"We know that is one of the critical transportation locations in the state," Degges said.
State engineers also are planning the expansion of Hickory Valley Road from state Highway 58 to open access to the Volkswagen plant and Amazon, he said. If the money's in place, he hopes construction will start within three years.
The money is the big question, he said.
State agencies have been told to be ready to cut 15 percent to 30 percent of their federal funds because of the spending cuts mandated under the debt ceiling agreement, The Associated Press reported Friday.
Degges said a transportation funding bill in the U.S. House might cost Tennessee $250 million to $300 million a year if it passes.
"That's a pretty significant cut" in a $1.8 billion budget, he said.
On the other hand, he said, since Tennessee is one of just four states that has a pay-as-you-go policy for road building, "we're in pretty good shape."
Several people in the audience had questions, particularly about the U.S. Highway 27 project, estimated to cost more than $70 million.
It's scheduled to go out for bid in October, and construction could get under way early next year, officials have said.
Degges said that the project to add one or two lanes in each direction, rebuild on- and off-ramps and close two exits is "one of the largest projects in the state of Tennessee."
He said that while commuter traffic is bound to be affected, the state's rules call for the builder to maintain two open lanes in both directions during construction.
From the back of the room, state Rep. Gerald McCormick piped up.
Pointing over his shoulder to state Sen. Bo Watson at the next table, McCormick said, "That's not in my district. If you have any questions, just call Sen. Watson."