How the new infrastructure law helps Tennessee speed up roads and other projects | Opinion

·6 min read

In the past 65 years there have been three major pieces of legislation that have molded the surface Transportation system we now enjoy in Tennessee.

In 1956 the U.S. Congress passed the “Interstate and Defense Highway Act,” which provided $25 billion of funding for construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways across the country.

In Tennessee, 1,047 miles were to be constructed over the next 13 years connecting our major cities of Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Clarksville and the Tri-cities with high speed and safe sections of I-40, 1-24, I-65, I-75 and I-81.

As with most programs of this type it took longer than expected and Tennessee’s original 1,047 miles were not actually completed until 1987 with the opening of I-440 in Nashville, over 30 years later.

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Better Roads Program

This section of Interstate 40/Interstate 24 west of Fesslers Lane, here Aug. 21, 2001, was the busiest section of highway in Tennessee last year, according to a report by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Interstates in all four of Tennessee's urban areas routinely carry more than 100,000 vehicles each day, TDOT said.
This section of Interstate 40/Interstate 24 west of Fesslers Lane, here Aug. 21, 2001, was the busiest section of highway in Tennessee last year, according to a report by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Interstates in all four of Tennessee's urban areas routinely carry more than 100,000 vehicles each day, TDOT said.

In 1986, thirty years later the Tennessee General Assembly passed the “Better Roads Program” a list of 312 projects across the state in every county with an estimated cost of $3.3 billion and to be completed by 1996, Tennessee Bicentennial year.

Notable projects in this list were Nonconnah Parkway in Memphis (now Bill Morris Parkway), I-840 around Nashville, I-140 (Pellissippi Parkway in Knoxville) and the I-181 extension in upper East Tennessee (now I-26).

This program also took longer than expected with the final completion of the 78 miles of I-840 around Nashville finally opening in October 2012 and the “Better Roads Program” came to an end.

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The IMPROVE Act

In 2017, 31 years later, the Tennessee General Assembly again passed a new transportation bill the IMPROVE Act, a list of 962 projects across the state to be completed in approximately 15 years with an estimated backlog project costs of $10.5 billion.

The Act increased the driver user fees for gasoline and diesel fuel to help fund the program, a fee that had not been raised since 1989, 28 years earlier.

This new bill generates an additional $244 million per year for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) with additional funds going to our 95 counties and all cities across the state.

While this increase was certainly a shot in arm to help fund TDOT’s backlog of 962 projects, inflation has eaten heavily into the cost of the construction over the past five years and since the increases in fuel taxes were not indexed for inflation the estimated completion date for the IMPROVE projects has been extended to be around 25 years instead of the original estimated 15 years.

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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

Now, in 2021, here comes the U.S. Congress again with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

As a nation, we owe thanksgiving for the bounty of infrastructure investment that was approved by this Congressional action.

This infrastructure bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden on Monday, provides the country's single largest investment in infrastructure and will fortify our various forms of traditional infrastructure.

With the federal government passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the IIJA will result in the U.S. transportation network undergoing exceptional improvement and should allow TDOT to complete their 962 projects listed in the IMPROVE Act much quicker and to address the additional needs that have arisen since the passage of the 2017 Act.

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How the federal law will help Tennessee

At a time when our infrastructure is aging, we are also confronting new needs and smartly this bill tends to both challenges.

Over the course of a five-year investment, the IIJA will provide $6.86 billion in highway and transit funding to the state.

  • $6.22 billion will go towards improving our highway systems of which $302 million will be dedicated to bridge replacement.

  • The remaining $630 million will improve public transportation options across the state.

These will result in an 11% increase over the state’s entire infrastructure budget and will provide a 30% Federal funding increase to TDOT. This is an increase of $280 million each year. These enhancements made to Tennessee’s infrastructure bring with it many economic benefits, as well as increased safety.

Tennessee has almost 96,000 miles of roadways in the state and with the 1986 “Better Roads Program” adding several new interstates we now have 1,233 miles of interstate highways in the state.

Although these interstates comprise only slightly over 1% of the total miles of roadway in Tennessee, they carry over 25% of all of the daily traffic in the state and a high majority of truck traffic in the state with most rural interstates averaging around 30% trucks.

Tennessee is fortunate to have three existing major automobile manufactures to have located production facilities in our state with Nissan in Smyrna off I-24, General Motors in Spring Hill off I-65, Volkswagen in Chattanooga off I-75 and now Ford locating at the Memphis Megasite off I-40 in West Tennessee.

These companies chose Tennessee for a number of good reasons but our outstanding interstate highway system was a major factor in their choosing Tennessee for their sites. Now with the passage of IIJA, Tennessee can complete the much needed IMPROVE Act projects more quickly and attract addition industries to locate in our great state.

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What else is funded

The categories of infrastructure spending in the IIJA include but are not limited to roads, bridges, broadband and water.

  • General Aviation Airports will receive $300 million for infrastructure enhancements over five years.

  • All states will receive a minimum of $100 million for broadband coverage. Ultimately a formula by the US Department of Commerce will distribute funds accounting for the numbers of underserved households in each state. It will benefit the 402,000 Tennesseans who currently lack broadband access. Additionally, up to 30% of Tennesseans will become eligible for internet access assistance through the Affordability Connectivity Benefit.

The Department of Commerce will distribute funds according to FCC maps, though there is no specified timeline for the FCC to release their new map. We expect broadband funds could take up to two years to be released with a conservative estimate to be $200 million to $400 million.

Bill Moore
Bill Moore

Health and safety are a major focus of the IIJA. The bill will improve the state’s water infrastructure, $697 million in federal funding will be used for this purpose, it will ensure all Tennesseans have safe, clean water to drink.

Tennessee has seen a dramatic increase in roadway fatalities since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, despite the fact that there has been considerably less driving taking place.

Assessments show increased driver speed to be the main contributing factor. With the investments being put into Tennessee’s roads and bridges and specific funds for safety improvements Tennesseans will be provided safer means to travel and hopefully start a new downward trend for fatalities on our roadways.

As a nation our entire future heavily relies on the interconnections of our communities with communities across the country and on having a great surface transportation system to utilize on a daily basis. This funding will ensure a bright future for our roads and a better outlook on our economy.

Bill Moore is chairman of the Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance. He has more than 50 years of transportation experience and retired as chief engineer from the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Infrastructure law: How Tennessee benefits while building on the past

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