Once President Joe Biden signs his name to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed late last week by Congress, important questions about how much hard infrastructure is in the bill and what part of the measure is actually paid for all too quickly will fade away.
And what is left is this:
"Certainly we will spend anything they send to us," state Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, told the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle last weekend, "and there are always projects we will do."
Neither Tennessee nor any other state is going give back their part of the money once it has been allocated. And any serious discussions about federal deficit spending will be kicked down the road again.
The Volunteer State appears to be getting slightly less than $8 billion in funding over five years, with $5.8 billion going to the state Department of Transportation (TDOT) for improving federal-aid highways and $302 million tabbed for bridge replacement and repairs.
The $5.8 billion is about $1.35 billion more than the state ordinarily might expect over that time in federal highway spending, TDOT officials said. The amount for bridges is some $60 million more than it would usually get over the period, they said.
Other amounts include $697 million to improve water infrastructure, $630 million for public transportation options, $300 million for airports, a minimum of $100 million to help provide broadband coverage, $88 million to support the expansion of an electric vehicle charging network, $21 million to protect against cyberattacks and $17 million for protection against wildfires.
Tennessee is fortunate its roads and bridges are in better shape than many states. According to TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit organization, only 14% of the state's major roads are in mediocre or poor conditions. That compares to 24% mediocre or poor roads in Georgia, 25% in Alabama, 32% in Kentucky and 37% in North Carolina.
State officials said the new federal money will not change priorities on road projects but could accelerate their progress.
Among the area road projects in the pipeline are phase two of the Interstate 75/Interstate 24 modification, the Interstate 24 interchanges at Broad and Market streets, and the widening of state Route 317 (Apison Pike).
Only 4% of Tennessee's bridges are rated in poor or structurally deficient condition, according to TRIP. But 37% of state bridges are at least 50 years old, meaning significant rehabilitation or replacement are not far away.
The $100 million in broadband funding is in addition to the $500 million Gov. Bill Lee proposed in August for the state to use from the $3.72 billion the state reaped from the March American Rescue Plan. Officials say the money can help provide access to the 402,000 state residents who don't have broadband. The infrastructure bill also will make 30% of state residents eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which assists low-income families in affording internet access.
However, a spokeswoman for the governor said all the current numbers are likely based on population-based distribution, and many could be incorrect because most amounts "have or will have unique distribution criteria" and require "an agency process of implementation."
Georgia is expected to gain more than $10 billion from the soon-to-be-signed bill, including $8.9 billion for highway projects, $1.3 billion for transit expansion, and $979 million for bridge repairs, airport improvements and electric vehicle charging stations.
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, posted on Twitter a breakdown of the amounts supposedly going to various Peach State cities and regions. They include $33 million for the Chattanooga/Northwest Georgia area, $14.4 million for Rome, $9 million for Dalton and $5.5 million for Cartersville.
Neither of Tennessee U.S. senators voted for the bill when it passed in August, and it was supported only by the state's two Democrats in the U.S. House last week.
At the time, Tennessee Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, indicated their support for "hard" infrastructure spending but rejected the bill because the Congressional Budget Office said it wasn't paid for, it hadn't been discussed in committees, it contained too much "government dependency" spending and it was inflationary.
While Georgia U.S. Sens. Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both Democrats, voted for the bill, and only six of the state's 14 House members did, Jay Williams, president of the Stoneridge Group in Alpharetta, Ga., said the measure would be paid for, but not in the way its supporters touted.
"At the end of the day, it's not free," he told Atlanta's WSB-TV. "Somebody's going to pay for it. And most likely, it's going to be our kids and grandkids."
As with the other COVID bills passed since the pandemic, the money will make states feel rich for a while and will repair some roads and bridges, which is what it ought to do. But its bloat, like Marley's ghost, is destined to come back and ruin many Christmases in the future.
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