published Monday, September 19th, 2011

Last-minute roads bill extension allows for paving, widening in Chattanooga area for next six months

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    Heat rises from the freshly-paved northbound lane of Barton Avenue as traffic passes in this file photo.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Thanks to a last-minute save, Chattanooga and surrounding communities can go on paving streets, building sidewalks and widening roads -- at least for the next six months.

After that, it's anybody's guess.

Congress last week approved a six-month extension, worth about $27.7 billion at current funding levels, to the Surface Transportation Bill that pays for everything from interstates to bike paths. That's less than the six-year, $556 billion bill that President Barack Obama asked for, but it means that road construction, bridge repairs and project planning won't grind to a halt Oct. 1.

Obama had said failing to renew the bill could cost nearly 14,000 Tennessee highway construction workers their jobs and shut down 3,359 highway projects and 115 transit projects in the state.

The U.S. House approved the extension on a voice vote Tuesday. Local representatives' votes were unavailable since the tally wasn't recorded. The Senate passed the bill on Thursday 92-6, with all tri-state senators voting yes.

Tennessee got slightly more than $904 million in federal funds this year, said Jennifer Flynn, Chattanooga spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. That includes $162 million for interstate construction, more than $549 million for state highway construction and nearly $64 million for bridge replacement. Getting half that amount for the next six months means work and planning can keep going.

"We are pleased Congress has acted to avert a shutdown of federal funding of transportation programs," Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said Friday. "This extension will hopefully give lawmakers the time they need to pass a long-term transportation bill, which is necessary to fund highway construction, transit and transportation safety programs that are critical to the state of Tennessee."

Local officials are depending on federal funding for a long-awaited reconstruction of the interchange of interstates 75 and 24. The estimated $80 million project is aimed at reducing the frequent wrecks and the constant congestion in the region's biggest interchange. Engineering has begun, but completion isn't scheduled before 2015.

Chattanooga's regional transportation planning organization gets between $5 million and $8 million a year in federal funds for local projects, said Melissa Taylor with the group. In this fiscal year, local projects from that fund include new buses for CARTA, planning for addition of a pedestrian-bicycle lane to the C.B. Robinson bridge, street paving and more. Those local projects could be cut back or eliminated if federal revenue dries up.

For now, the future is murky, officials and area lawmakers said.

"We could really run into a dangerous situation after March," said DeLania Hardy of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Washington, D.C.

There are a couple of bills in play in the U.S. House and Senate calling for two- or six-year extensions of the highway bill.

Obama is pushing for a $10 billion, privately funded infrastructure bank separate from the highway bill.

But House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., says transportation funding should come from proceeds of the federal gasoline tax and not be subsidized from the general fund. That would carve about $13 billion out of the current annual budget of $55.4 billion.

Then there's the "super committee" that's meeting to come up with a long-term deficit reduction plan before the end of the year.

Tennessee's Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both said in statements that transportation funding is vital to local communities.

With the extension passed, Alexander said, Congress should "move as quickly as possible to a long-term highway bill that state and local governments can depend on."

Corker "believes part of creating the right environment for job creation is being thoughtful about infrastructure and planning it in a long-range manner," according to spokeswoman Laura Herzog. The senator "has encouraged the 'super committee' to include passage of a longer-term highway bill, not just repeated extensions, in their proposal."

Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also agreed on the need for infrastructure improvements to help congestion and economic development. But he also warned the country is "spending money it does not have."

"I am committed to continuing to work with the rest of the members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to create a strong, competitive and financially viable infrastructure system, with a focus on the needs of Tennessee and the southeastern United States," Fleischmann said in a statement.

Hardy said the term of any eventual transportation bill is far less important than the policies it adopts.

The federal gasoline tax hasn't been raised since President Clinton's term, she said, and the Highway Trust Fund is "on the verge of just tanking."

"If you come up with a game plan for six years that makes our transportation system as anorexic as possible, that's a red flag," she said.

Hardy said the U.S. transportation system ranked seventh in the world 10 years ago. Now, she said, it ranks 23rd. Failure to maintain and modernize the system is not only "an embarrassment to the country," she said, but hurts the nation's economy.

"We have to have an investment in transportation. What you're putting money into pays for the economy to keep on going," she said.

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about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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