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Tennessee lawmakers juggle funding equity in governor’s road plan

Middle Tennessee has the greatest number of road miles and highest population of the state’s four quadrants, yet will get the least amount of funding in a proposed transportation plan.
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Lawrence Sawyer
Middle Tennessee has the greatest number of road miles and highest population of the state’s four quadrants, yet will get the least amount of funding in a proposed transportation plan.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation is defending a $3 billion proposal to fund projects across the state even though the money is split unevenly per capita, potentially shortchanging the most populated area of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.

Transportation Commissioner Butch Eley says the proposal is meant as a “guide,” and he notes that every region needs more money than is being proposed in the governor’s budget.

“This just allows us to make sure we ensure that every Tennessean, all parts of the state participate in these dollars,” Eley says.

Each of four quadrants is to receive $750 million under Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal. In addition, counties and cities are to split another $300 million through grants for road projects.

Butch Eley, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation
Tennessee Department of Transportation
Butch Eley, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation

Skeptics, including Democratic state Rep. Jason Powell of Nashville, say the money needs to be doled out differently. Otherwise, Nashville will be “short-changed.”

“I do not like the way the money is divided in these regions, and I don’t think it’s done equitably,” says Powell, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

A breakdown reported by the Tennessee Journal shows Region 2, from Chattanooga to the Kentucky state line with a population of 1.12 million, is set to receive $667 per capita, more than twice as much as Middle Tennessee.

Region 4, from Memphis to Kentucky with a population of 1.57 million, would receive $479 per capita. Region 1, including Knoxville and the rest of East Tennessee with a population of 1.77 million, would receive $423 per capita. Region 3, including Nashville and Middle Tennessee with a population of 2.45 million, would receive $307 per capita.

Chambers of Commerce statewide, including Nashville, endorsed the governor’s $3.3 billion roads plan Monday, based largely on the state’s 9% population growth rate and the need to attract more business, according to a Tennessee Journal report.

Region 2 has not only the smallest population but the fewest lane miles, 7,732, while Region 1 has 9,123 lane miles. Region 3 in Middle Tennessee has the most lane miles, 11,398, according to the Transportation Department, and Region 4 has 10,000 lane miles.

Despite the per-capita discrepancies, Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Becky Massey says she’s “not a bit” concerned.

The Knoxville Republican, who will start helping ferry legislation this week through the Senate for public-private partnerships, points out Knox County had three of the top five most congested spots in the state in 2019 and 2020. Yet she says several factors are taken into consideration, including number of bridges and vehicle miles traveled.

The Transportation Department also says focusing on population fails to account for the location of state highways, geography and topography.

Tennessee’s Region 3, which includes Nashville and Middle Tennessee, has the most lane miles and the highest population of any of the state’s four quadrants, yet is slated to receive the least amount of money through Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed transportation plan.

“Decades and decades ago, you could tell where the governor was from because that’s where the best roads were…,” Massey says. “That’s why it was nice when Lamar (Alexander) finally got elected governor because we finally got a little road projects in East Tennessee. Because we had lots of years of neglect before that.”

Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bo Watson of Hixson near Chattanooga agrees that the money should be divided equally among the regions.

“That’s a fair way to do it … by the region,” Watson says.

He points the region has a lot of “topographical challenges,” which cause project costs to increase. Watson says the funding split has nothing to do with the fact he serves as finance committee chair.

Studies on the Department of Transportation website show Nashville and its surrounding counties by far have the most congested interstates and highways in Tennessee. Every section of roadway in and out of Davidson County is heavily traveled, according to the Middle Tennessee study.

Chattanooga’s congestion is confined mainly to I-24 and I-75, Highway 64, Highway 41, Highway 58 and Highway 27. Knoxville’s worst traffic runs mainly on two segments of I-75. Memphis’ most congested roads are I-40, I-69 and I-240.

To attack this urban congestion and free up money for rural road projects, Lee is proposing public-private partnerships in which the private sector would provide the funding for express routes, expedite the work and charge a fee for motorists who choose to use them.

Republican bill sponsor, Sen. Becky Massey, says she’s “not a bit concerned” about a funding imbalance in Gov. Bill Lee’s transit plan. Her colleague, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, says the money should be divided equally among the state’s four regions. “That’s a fair way to do it,” said Watson.

Some lawmakers refer to this as a “toll road,” which brings a negative connotation, while the state prefers to call them “choice lanes,” or at the least, “toll lanes.”

“All we’re talking about is giving Tennesseans options, and this is an option that gets whoever chooses to get where they want to faster,” Eley says. “More importantly, it gives us the opportunity to use the dollars of the public-private sector investment to be able to leverage those dollars to do more over the rest of Tennessee in the rural and urban areas.”

Massey points out these types of projects will keep the state from raising taxes or borrowing to build roads. And though she admits it’s “not an end-all solution, she says it should help put a “dent in the problem.”

Massey, whose daughter lives in Texas and uses express routes there, says in some cases new lanes might have to be built above existing lanes, enabling the state to avoid buying public right of way.

Eley told the Lookout the state will own the roads and lanes built by private enterprise.

Powell, on the other hand, says he’s concerned about the potential for 50-year leases on express lanes.

Sponsor of legislation to increase Amtrak’s presence in Tennessee, Powell also points out the governor’s plan contains no public transit or alternative forms of transportation, which he believes are critical for the future.

“I really feel like it’s somewhat of a Band-Aid and we’re still not getting to the root of the problem,” Powell says.

This story was originally published by the Tennessee Lookout.

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor with the Tennessee Lookout, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.
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