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County's state highways 'need $121 mil'

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Mayor: We need several more projects as well

Wilson County faces a $121.3 million problem with a lack of funding for highway construction, but the problem isn't with the county budget. It's with the state budget for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).

Unfunded TDOT projects listed by the Transportation Coalition of Tennessee (TCT) - a statewide advocacy group that wants to see the projects built - include widening I-40 to eight lanes for three more miles east of its recently completed widening from Davidson County eastward through Mt. Juliet.

That was a good start. But according to the transportation coalition, the busy, bumper-to-bumper interstate still needs widening for the remaining three miles from State Route 109 to SR 840 - not to mention its stretch through Lebanon east of 840.

4 mega-mil projects

Widening the three miles from 109 to 840 would cost $25 million, according to TDOT, so that's still on the wish list, so far.

Also on the coalition's wish list are rebuilding and widening:

  • SR 109 from US 70 for 7.1 miles northward to the Cumberland River - the priciest project, at an estimated cost of $32 million.

  • SR 141 - known as Lovers' Lane - for 2.3 miles from Lebanon to Hartsville, at a price tag of $16.1 million.

  • US 70 from just west of the Wilson County line for 6.2 miles eastward to SR 96 in DeKalb County, for a $15.2 million cost.

If the DeKalb mileage is included in the US 70 project that would begin in Wilson, the overall total of unfunded Wilson County TDOT projects comes to a whopping $121.3 million.

'Only a drop in $8 bil'

However, the county's total is only a drop in the nearly $8 billion in unfunded highway projects statewide which Gov. Bill Haslam is touring the state to raise awareness about - although Haslam has backed off from specifically advocating an increase in the state's gasoline tax, which has not been upped since the late 1980s.

The good news in Wilson, according to County Mayor Randall Hutto, is that the planning and engineering phases of the SR 109 project are already complete - and right-of-way acquisition is funded. The project is desperately needed, county officials and residents generally agree, since the extremely heavy traffic on the currently two-lane highway contributes to frequent accidents on 109.

The bad news, according to TDOT Community Relations Officer Heather Jensen, is that while the preparatory work is indeed complete or funded, the construction money for the 109 project has not yet been approved.

What's more, Hutto says, the four unfunded projects identified by the transportation coalition aren't the only projects that Wilson County desperately needs.

'Central Pike, all of 70...'

"Central Pike needs an interchange on I-40 and it needs to be widened to relieve the pressure on Mt. Juliet Road," Hutto said. "And we need SR 70 widened not just down by the DeKalb County line, but all the way from Lebanon on past Watertown."

Hutto agrees with Gov. Haslam that TDOT needs more funding - but he says he's not sure that raising fuel taxes, which Haslam favors, is the best solution.

"Tennessee is a no-borrow state and in a way, that's good, but it's limited," Hutto says. "We need to prepare for growth. We surely don't want gridlock like they have in Atlanta - but nobody wants more taxes, either."

But Haslam, who doesn't favor borrowing money for road and bridge construction, has pointed out as part of his statewide tour that the state is going to have to seek solutions. And although he continues to mention the fuel tax, he does stop short of proposing an increase.

Nation's 40th lowest fuel tax

Tennessee's fuel tax is one of the lowest in the United States, ranked 40th, and hasn't been raised for nearly three decades. TDOT officials also point out that the increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles means that less fuel is bought and therefore, less tax is paid into state coffers.

According to the Transportation Coalition of Tennessee, a statewide advocacy group with members ranging from associations of highway contractors, engineers, truckers and county commissioners to the American Automobile Association (AAA), American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the American Heart Association, it will take a total of $121.3 million to fund the four major highway construction or repair projects they list for Wilson.

But "money is an issue for the state - we don't know when these projects will be funded," TDOT's Jensen said.

'Tip of statewide iceberg'

According to Susie Alcorn, executive director of the transportation coalition, the problems in Wilson County are only the tip of a statewide iceberg. She says TDOT is almost $8 billion behind on funding for road and bridge projects statewide.

All projects that the coalition lists for each county in the state have at least been started, Alcorn added. "To be included on our list, TDOT would have completed a Transportation Planning Report," she said. "But we are aware there are other projects of interest."

Which is why Central Pike and the rest of SR 70 in Wilson County aren't on the list yet. They haven't even reached the planning stage.

TDOT's Jensen confirmed that all the projects listed by the transportation coalition are currently unfunded, although some have had some phases funded in the past.

Funding for each project goes through at least four phases, she said - planning, design, right-of-way acquisition and construction.

Comptroller issues warning

A recent State Comptroller's report, however, offers very limited hope for that funding unless changes come in TDOT's revenue sources. It says that funding is not expected to be adequate to maintain current roadways or to meet future construction needs.

Perhaps that funding will be found "down the road" - literally. Meanwhile, as Wilson County continues growing rapidly along with the rest of Middle Tennessee, so will its highway traffic and safety woes.

Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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#publicsafety, construction, Hwy. 109, I-40, project, roads, TDOT, Transportation
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