Two road projects delayed
Stephanie Myers
Two road projects in Loudon County will be delayed by at least two years, thanks to uncertainty over future federal funding, a pivotal catalyst for Tennessee Department of Transportation projects across the state.

Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens expressed disappointment in the delays, which he said will affect other road projects in the city that coincide with the delayed projects. Aikens said he plans to meet with state legislators in hopes of getting the projects back on track.

TDOT Commissioner John Schroer sent a letter on Oct. 24 to Tennessee state legislators reporting that 12 construction projects and 21 right-of-way acquisitions, representing a little less than $400 million in transportation improvements, will be shifted out of the fiscal year 2015 budget, which ends on Sept. 30, 2015, because of uncertainty in federal transportation funding.

“On July 31, 2014, Congress passed a $10.8 billion extension to the Highway Trust Fund, the mechanism for federal funding of Tennessee transportation projects,” TDOT said on its website in response to statewide project delays. “Signed by President Obama on Aug. 8, 2014, the bill provided the extension of federal funding until May 31, 2015. However, in this temporary measure passed by Congress, money was obligated only through Dec. 11, 2014 placing states in a position of uncertainty for federal funding after that date.”

One project in Loudon County that will be affected by the delay includes a right-of-way acquisition, one of the first steps into starting a construction project for a signature intersection at U.S. Highways 321 and 11. The intersection will include two left turns and two straightaways and an exclusive right turn at all four approaches. The intersection is proposed to cost $9.5 million.

Aikens said he worries that the staggered completion dates will contribute to traffic “bottle necking” at the intersection once the Tennessee River bridge project is completed in June 2016. Aikens added that the city will soon be moving forward on traffic signalization along U.S. Highway 321 as well.

“We are going to have more traffic when word gets out that the bridge work is completed,” Aikens said. “We know that plus the traffic signalization is going to move that traffic on through on 321, and when that happens, obviously, you’re going to be at the bottom of the hill and can’t go any place because of all the traffic. It’s a much needed project that needs to be completed along with the other two projects.”

Another project, construction on U.S. Highway 321 from the intersection with U.S. Highway 11 to Simpson Road East, will also be delayed until fiscal year 2016. The project, at $9.8 million, will include expansion from four to a six-lane highway with realignment of left turns at multiple locations and side street improvements.

Paul Degges, TDOT’s chief engineer, said in a previous interview with Lenoir City officials in June that the project, which also coincides with the bridge project, should take 18-24 months to construct. The project will be funded from 80 percent federal dollars, with 20 percent coming from the state.

Funding a key word

Lenoir City Administrator Jim Wilburn also expressed disappointment in the delay.

“I wish it could move forward, but I understand why it can’t, and the commissioner is very fiscally conservative and responsible. That’s the main reason for it and I applaud him for that, but they are both needed,” Wilburn said. “There is no question about it.”

“TDOT is one of only a few states that doesn’t operate with debt. Other states will fund projects and know that they’ll go into debt with those projects. We won’t allow a project to continue unless that funding is there,” TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said during an interview in August when TDOT officials held a public meeting to get public input and provide a progress report on the proposed signature intersection. “You wouldn’t see anything take place on this project until that massive bridge project is done.”

TDOT receives about half of its funding from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, said the state also receives road funding from other sources, including the gas tax, which has not seen an increase in Tennessee since the 1980s. According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, the state’s tax rate is set at 20 cents per gallon of gasoline.

“There is probably going to be a move by the governor in the next year to two to revaluate the whole revenue stream for the TDOT projects because it has become now that we can almost only maintain roads at the current rate of revenue rather than going out and building new ones like we’ve got to do,” Matlock said.

Matlock, who also sits on the House Transportation Committee, said proposed new revenue streams to help ease the federal funding uncertainty include increasing the state’s gas tax and reprioritizing budgets across state departments.

“Candidly, we may be at that point in the gas tax that we’ve hit the bare minimum in taxes, and we may actually have to look at some new revenue streams and there are other sources beyond taxes,” Matlock said. “There’s that dirty word called the toll roads that’s being used in some states, and some states put a fee on your registration. There are a number of ideas that have been tossed about that would bring more revenue in.

“There’s no perfect fix we know that. It’s going to involve a little bit of give and take from everybody. It may be a combination of a fuel tax increase plus re-registration increase plus toll roads,” he added. “Those are some of the ideas that have come out.”

Matlock said he thought the state will address a path to move forward with the delayed road projects when the state legislature goes back in session in January.

“There will be some specific proposals come down from the governor’s office because it’s going to be one of the top priority issues of our session 2015,” Matlock said.

But until then, Lenoir City and drivers passing through town will be in a waiting game.

“We’ll just wait and see for the state to give us the go ahead,” Wilburn said. “It’s funding that’s on upstream that we wait to come downstream, so it’s really sort of the ball is in their court.”