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Charting Tennessee's transportation system for the 90's.

There's an old story about the lost motorist who stopped to ask for directions and was told very matter-of-factly, "You can't get there from here." Fortunately, in Tennessee there are few places where that statement applies.

The 1990s have presented the Tennessee Department of Transportation with a full slate of transportation issues and challenges such as finding innovative yet stable revenue sources to fund existing programs; supplementing the highway system with efficient, affordable mass transit programs to serve more citizens; hiring and retaining a quality, competent work force, especially civil engineers; and helping to clean up and preserve the environment.

Among the most pressing challenges facing the Department during the next decade is how to find the revenue necessary to meet growing transportation needs. In short, like most states, Tennessee has more needs than it has money. It would take an estimated $11.5 billion to address all the needs of the current transportation system, including highway resurfacing, correcting deficiencies on state highways, expansion of urban highway systems to accommodate growing traffic, and replacing or rehabilitating Tennessee's aging bridges.

As head of a department with an annual budget of almost one billion dollars, I am often asked how there could be a shortage of money to build roads and repair bridges. The answer is simple-more needs than revenue. Tennessee has one of the highest gasoline taxes in the nation, and the Department of Transportation receives nearly 61 percent of that revenue. The state gas tax has been increased twice in the past four years-to 8 cents per gallon-in order to pay for highway construction. And, the state General Assembly has recently been asked to consider authorizing $150 million in bonds for the transportation system.

Tennessee has made significant progress in building new roads and expanding existing highways to relieve traffic congestion and improve access for rural areas. Road construction projects are now underway literally from one end of the state to the other-from Nonconnah Parkway in Memphis, to the Interstate 181 Extension in Unicoi County, to the North Parkway at Clarksville and the new Highway 50 Connector from Winchester to 1-24 in Franklin County.

These projects, and more than 280 others statewide, are part of a 13-year, $3.3 billion road-building and improvement program. Most of the Department's highway construction budget goes toward that program.

But, that program only addresses needs on Tennessee's primary system of highways. Other areas of need, such as upkeep on the interstate and secondary highway systems and the aged, substandard bridges across the state, continue to feel the effects of fewer federal dollars.

Tennessee's 1,100-mile system of interstate routes, barely 30 years old, is suffering from wear and tear and in many urban areas operating beyond capacity. Yet, the annual allocation of federal funds designated specifically for the interstate system has been anything but consistent in recent budget years. For example, in Fiscal Year 1987, Tennessee received $72.4 million; the following year the allocation dropped to $61.3 million. Since then, the amount has been slowly creeping up to the current balance of $63 million. Next year, Tennessee anticipates getting $63.7 million.

A more dramatic pattern of funding reduction and inadequacy is evident in the Federal-Aid Bridge Replacement Program, the state's primary source of funding for replacing and rehabilitating bridges. While the federal government's funding of this program nationwide has been fairly consistent in recent years, Tennessee's allocation has been systematically reduced. Over the last three years, the annual allocation under this program was cut $16 million, the equivalent of what it would cost to replace approximately 50 bridges.

Since the collapse of the Hatchie River Bridge in West Tennessee in 1989, the Department has actively looked for ways to increase efforts in bridge safety and fill in the gap left by reduced federal bridge money. A new 10-year, 100-million off-system bridge program, aimed at helping cities and counties maintain and replace their bridges, took effect last July 1. More than half of the state's 18,711 bridges are offsystem," meaning they fall under the responsibility of agencies or governments other than the state Department of Transportation. Me Department estimates that between 150 to 175 deficient off-system bridges can be repaired annually under the new bridge program now in place.

Efforts to address needs on the state maintained bridges are being directed in two ways. Under the Federal-Aid Bridge Replacement Program, the Department is working to systematically rehabilitate bridges that are too narrow and that have posted legal load limits. Within the parameters of the state-funded efforts, included in this year's budget was $7.5 million in additional maintenance funds for contract bridge repairs, and outside consultants were contracted to supplement the work of the Department of Transportation's in-house personnel in preparing bridge repair plans. These factors mean more bridge repairs this year than in the past.

The fundamental concern remains the same, however, and is shared by all 50 states. ne federal government's recent decision to increase 1991 spending levels for transportation by more than $2 billion and drawing off some of the more than $10.5 billion in the Highway Trust Fund is commendable, but it's not enough. States already shoulder 78 percent of this country's total highway spending burden, compared to the federal contribution of only 22 percent. The latest proposal from the Bush Administration includes two items that raise serious concerns for Tennessee.

The first concern involves the establishment of a "Highways of National Significance" system to supplement the existing interstate system. The allocated target mileage for Tennessee is too limited and would not be sufficient to allow the state to address needs on its primary highway system. A total of 1,765 miles is proposed for Tennessee on this new system. Tennessee has 5,214 miles of primary highways, more than 1,100 of which are interstate miles. The majority of these miles would automatically be designated Highways of National Significance. That leaves little room for the state to address needs on the remaining primary system.

The other concern about the proposed national transportation policy is changing the existing federal funding formulas to increase the amount states would be expected to provide as matching funds. Tennessee, like other states, would be forced to begin searching for other ways to come up with additional revenue. Increased state matching requirements will add pressure on existing funding sources for 100-percent state programs. Already having one of the highest gasoline taxes in the country, coupled with the recent 5-cent federal gas tax hike, would make it very difficult for Tennessee to consider yet another gas tax increase.

Public transit is an area of transportation that, regrettably, is often overshadowed by the emphasis on highway construction, but the 1990s will likely see that change. Many factors point to a resurgence of public transit as a primary means of travel in the urban areas. The costs of new highway construction and limited rights-of-way to expand existing highways make it imperative that more people are moved in fewer vehicles. Simple arithmetic favors public transit as well as commuter carpools, vanpools, and other forms of "ridesharing."

Public transit is also essential for basic mobility for those who cannot rely on the automobile-for access to jobs, medical care, and other daily activities that many take for granted. In addition, everyone benefits from reduced traffic congestion, air pollution, and energy consumption.

The needs for expanded public transit and increased ridesharing are substantial, but so are the challenges. Federal funding has diminished in recent years, and Tennessee has to rely heavily on local and state funding to expand its transit systems. Traffic congestion is a growing problem in suburban areas where conventional "line haul" transit may not be a viable solution and urban transit systems must serve multiple objectives. Some of the priorities that must be addressed by urban systems include peak hour commuter service, transportation for the handicapped, basic mobility for the low-income, influencing land use and economic development, reducing air pollution, and solving parking problems.

Local and state officials, as well as the private sector, have many issues to address, but progress is being made. Many of the urban transit systems, including the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), are expanding their focus beyond conventional bus service to promote "mobility" in its broadest senses. focal land use and transportation decisions are more closely linked than in the past. State government has substantially increased its support for public transit over the past five years, and proposed new legislation in Congress will give local and state governments more flexibility in using federal highway and transit funds to address local priorities.

HELPING MINORITY BUSINESSES COMPETE The Department has been encouraging more participation by minority-owned construction companies. In 1987, the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Shelby State Community College in Memphis launched the first Entrepreneurial Development Institute (EDI) in Tennessee to provide support services through training and technical assistance to minority and women-owned businesses. The primary goal of this program is to enable the firms to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully bid on and perform work for the Department.

Participants gain practical knowledge and experience through individual assessment and group training in such areas as bookkeeping and accounting, business law, financing, bonding, marketing concepts, personal salesmanship, and human resource development.

Initially formed as a regional program, EDI is now working with firms all across Tennessee. Earlier this year, 19 companies took part in a Bid Simulation and Project Management Retreat held in Nashville in which participants were led step-by-step through preparation for bidding on a highway project. The participants toured a project job site near Nashville and prepared actual bids that were opened by Tennessee Department of Transportation Construction Office personnel during a mock bid letting.

This kind of hands-on training, interlaced with input and participation from the Department, is valuable to minority-owned firms. Their success is a major goal of Shelby State, the Department, and the Federal Highway Administration to increase participation by these firms in securing and completing highway contracts.

DECLINE OF CIVIL ENGINEERS

Yet, our success in this area is offset by a disturbing trend that threatens to hamper efforts to improve the Department from within and thereby keep pace with the growing needs ahead. Nationwide, there is a shortage of civil engineers, and the effects have begun trickling down to Tennessee. In recent years, the Department has seen an alarming decline in the number of civil engineering students entering and graduating from college. And many graduate and licensed engineers in state government find it hard to resist better pay and benefits offered by the private sector.

In 1989, for example, 26 engineers left Tennessee's Department of Transportation. Reasons for leaving varied from greater job opportunities and higher salaries to retirement. The Department's hire rate during that same time period was 17. Last year, the Department had 684 authorized civil engineering-related positions, with only 262 filled with graduate and/or licensed civil engineers. Me Department maintains about a 10 percent vacancy rate in these positions.

With the job market becoming more and more competitive, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain engineers in state government. Tennessee is now working closely with a national task force, formed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, to address this problem. CLEANING UP TENNESSEE

Finally, the Department has been successful with its litter clean-up and prevention efforts over the years. For the past five years, the Department's various anti-litter programs have placed first among all 50 states in annual competition sponsored by Keep America Beautiful and the Federal Highway Administration.

Frog Pond," the Department's litter prevention curriculum for K-6 students developed by Memphis State University and Clean Tennessee, has been used in over 1,500 public schools and is proving to be an effective educational tool in changing the attitudes of Tennesseans toward preventing litter. Also, the first anniversary of the new Adopt-A-Highway program passed with over 2,500 miles-nearly 17 percent of the state highway system-having been adopted by volunteer groups across the state.

The Department is attempting to increase its emphasis in recycling. A number of counties participating in the Litter Grant program already incorporate recycling in their program efforts, and the Department encourages Adopt-A-Highway groups to separate recyclable items when picking up litter along their highways. N
COPYRIGHT 1991 University of Memphis
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Evans, Jimmy M.
Publication:Business Perspectives
Date:Mar 22, 1991
Words:2046
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