Money crunch stalls road projects in Tennessee

Hank Hayes • Jan 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Tennessee’s road funding situation is “horrible,” and that leaves much-needed local projects like the Memorial Boulevard widening nowhere near being put into a state budget, state Rep. Nathan Vaughn says.

Vaughn, a House Transportation Committee member, told members of the Times-News Editorial Board that the federal government has shifted the financing burden of road building back onto the states.

“The federal government has basically told us: ‘Get up off your back,’” said Vaughn, D-Kingsport. “The last two years, they have taken back money they have already appropriated to us and said ‘We need this money back.’”

The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) announced last year that $171.4 million in federal funds had been rescinded since December 2005.

As a result, Vaughn noted that no new road projects were funded in Tennessee last year.

“The road builders are very disappointed as to what has happened. ... They see more and more of those dollars going toward environmental studies and how we are going to build roads as compared to actually doing it,” Vaughn said. “We’re being told it will get worse before it gets better.”

TDOT, Vaughn said, is encouraging areas of the state to prioritize regional highway projects. Earlier this year, Tri-Cities governments urged Northeast Tennessee lawmakers in a policy document to get behind upgrading State Route 75 near Tri-Cities Regional Airport, extending the Airport Parkway to the U.S. 11E-19E intersection, and improving the Interstate 26-81 interchange.

Kingsport’s push for improvements to an eight-mile stretch of Memorial Boulevard from Center Street to Interstate 81 isn’t close to the funding hopper, Vaughn said.

“It is three to five years in the environmental (study) process,” Vaughn said of the Memorial Boulevard project.

The need for improvements along the corridor that connects Kingsport to I-81 has been discussed since the early 1990s. Last year, TDOT ballparked the project at upwards of $90 million.

Aside from road funding, Vaughn said a weaker economy will result in a tighter state budget that is expected to include “reversions” — cuts — in department budgets.

“Whether or not you think it is fair and reasonable, it is part of the landscape that we as a legislature have to address,” Vaughn said of the expected cuts. “Tax collections continue to be weak. ... There is so very little room for us to be caught up in bipartisanship and squabbles. ... One of the things I tell people is that we are going to be judged as a society by how we treat the least of these. ... Are we going to balance the budget of Tennessee on the backs of poor people and the backs of individuals who have mental illness and injuries?”

Vaughn also talked about his anticipated election battle this year against Colonial Heights Republican Tony Shipley for his 2nd House District seat.

If he is unseated, Vaughn stressed that Republicans would cut off the region’s access to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and House Democrats led by House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh. Democrats hold a 53-46 majority in the House, while there are 16 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one independent in the Senate.

Vaughn is the only Democrat in the Sullivan County delegation of state lawmakers.

“I have influence and access to all the power players ... and that’s good for us,” Vaughn said. “When (Blountville Republican) Ron Ramsey was elected lieutenant governor (in 2007), that was good for us. ... When the House Democratic Caucus sits down, we need to have someone saying ‘Northeast Tennessee is here.’”

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