Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Traffic moves through the junction of Interstate-24 West, at left, and Interstate-75 North, on an August morning. Until phase 2 of the Split project is begun and finished, the backup on I-75's ramp to I-24 will linger at the two-into-one lane merger.

More jobs, more spending, more booming

After unemployment in Tennessee jumped to a record high 15.8% in April 2020, the jobless rate in Tennessee fell last month to 4% — the lowest since March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the economy.

Tennessee also had a record amount of new business investment (meaning new jobs) in 2021 — despite COVID-19 disruptions. In fact, Tennessee career centers are advertising 410,000 open jobs — or more than four jobs for every one of the 102,687 people who were unemployed here last month.

But that's not all. Consumer spending on whole has roared above pre-pandemic levels thanks to a relatively rapid economic recovery.

"Real GDP has already recovered to pre-pandemic levels due to a strong surge in consumer spending," said Larry Kessler, research associate professor in the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

Everyone — especially the GOP in Tennessee and Georgia — should admit something right now: Our economy is booming thanks, at least in part, to the Biden administration's COVID relief. Imagine the still greater booms if the Build Back Better bill could get passed.

Things are even better in neighboring Georgia, where unemployment declined last month to 2.8% — the lowest level on record — and the number of Georgians on the job rose to a new high.

"The hard work is still in front of us as job creation is outpacing new workers in the labor force," said Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

These and other experts say there is no single explanation for the slower labor market recovery, but many have reflected on their work-life balance since the pandemic began, and some have decided to switch jobs while others may not be as quick to re-enter the labor force.

But there is one other thing: 18,000 Tennesseans and 31,000 Georgians have died, just because of COVID-19. Not all of them left jobs empty, but certainly some did.


Let's talk about inflation

Don't let anyone, especially our Republican lawmakers, tell you inflation is hurting us or our economy because of Democrats.

The inflation is real, but the important question is why.

And part of that why is the aforementioned "strong surge in consumer spending."

The Hill writes: "While American spending has helped fuel a quicker comeback, it has also added pressure to supply chains. Producers and suppliers are wading through shortages of key supplies, port bottlenecks, COVID-19-related shutdowns abroad and hiring troubles in transportation industries. With supply limited, many producers have raised their prices to compensate, which has also lifted prices paid by consumers."

But some of it, too, is just price gouging. The Biden administration recently blasted several industries that it claims have boosted prices far beyond the costs of disruption, including the oil industry and meat producers.

The blasting and other administration efforts must have done some good.

Chattanooga gas prices have fallen nearly 15 cents a gallon since reaching a seven-year high last month, and it should go even lower, according to a new report by the online fuel reporting service

Chattanooga's $2.94 a gallon average price for regular gasoline is 38 cents a gallon below the U.S. average and 14.7 cents a gallon less than a month ago.


Beware of Republicans' hard hats

Maybe all those jobs, cheaper gas and the holiday season are behind the Interstate 75/Interstate 24 split's No. 7 ranking in the Top 20 list of bottlenecks in the nation. Still. Despite the completion of phase 1 of the Tennessee Department of Transportation's $133.5 million reconstruction project to add lanes and improve traffic flow.

A second ranking bottleneck, No. 13, is in Nashville at the interchange of I-24, Interstate-40 and Interstate-440. Atlanta has two more, Nos. 3 and 4, both on Interstate 285.

We here in Chattanooga are really tired of this. After all, the I-24/I-75 split is a six-decade headache for us. That's how long the ramp from the northbound lanes of I-75 to the westbound lanes of I-24 near East Ridge have narrowed from two lanes into one. TDOT's phase 1 work improved traffic flow in most directions, but not this one because of — you guessed it — funding, according to TDOT spokesperson Rae-Anne Bradley.

"As you may already be aware, the Tennessee Department of Transportation does not go into debt to fund our projects. We are a pay-as-you-go state," Bradley said. "This project was too expensive to complete under a single contract — which is why it had to be broken up into two separate projects."

A reminder is in order here: The recently passed $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act "will provide additional funds to allow [TDOT] to continue with phase 2 improvements to the I-24/I-75 directional interchange in Chattanooga, currently identified as a freight bottleneck," said Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance chairman Bill Moore.

The phase 2 work is expected to be under contract by the end of 2022 and under construction in the spring of 2023.

Here's one more reminder: That aforementioned infrastructure package passed 228-206, largely along party lines. In Tennessee and Georgia, all senate and congressional Democrats voted for the bill and all Republicans voted against it. Please remember this when our Republican politicians pose for pictures in gleaming hard hats and try to take credit for the nice new paving.