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VOL. 41 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 20, 2017

From frustration to fixed: The long life of a road project

By Hollie Deese

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One surefire way to get some heated interaction on social media ­– other than talking politics – is a discussion of traffic, road conditions or both. But ranting about why there isn’t an interstate ramp here or a turn lane there simply won’t get the job done.

Making the extra effort to mobilize that passion into a grassroots movement might.

Tennessee Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Paul Degges says when it comes to getting a state construction project on the radar of TDOT, it sometimes takes a community coming together to make the agency aware of the situation.

“We have data that looks at certain roads,” Degges explains. “We look at crash rates, we look at traffic volumes. But, for the most part, a project gets started when a community comes to the department and says, ‘Hey, commissioner, I’ve got bad congestion. TDOT really needs to widen this road.’”

Rural areas also have the ear of TDOT when residents get involved. And although their needs are different, they are no less urgent in order to spur the economy, growth and new business.

Fixing an old, crooked, two-lane road might seem insignificant to people on the other side of the state. But it could mean the ability to recruit more industry.

“For the most part, projects are a grassroots-type of an effort that communities [bring] to the department,” Degges explains.

Tennesseans also need to manage their expectations.

“There are projects around where people have been coming to us for 20 years – so you have to understand that need is a relative term,” Degges says. “Congestion is a local issue, and access a lot of times means building a new road in a really, really rural community. Everybody wants a four-lane divided highway. That can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and sometimes we just can’t afford those.”

Once TDOT is made aware of a project through grassroots efforts, the department will make a decision whether it is a worthwhile investment for the state.

Types of road projects

There’s two different types of projects, the first being programmatic projects which include upkeep, maintenance and repaving.

“We have roads that need paved every year,” Degges points out. “I’ve got bridges that need replaced.

“Every time there’s a crash in the state and a policeman fills out a crash report, it goes into a database, and we mine that database for information. I’ve [got] programmatic projects if I’m going to pave an interstate, replace a bridge or work on an intersection.”

Each time a road is widened or lanes added, there’s more pavement surface that needs to be maintained. More vehicles on the road means more wear and tear. TDOT does some predictive work that projects the condition of pavement for the next 10 years.

“The vehicle miles traveled is increasing today at the same rate it was increasing before the recession,” Degges says. “My system gets a little bit bigger every year, and so I do have to modify my budget. I look at several years data from the past, and then I project it out into the future to make sure that I’m putting enough resources into my resurfacing program.”

The budget to fund these resurfacing and repair projects is part of the capital construction program, which also includes snow and ice removal, garbage pickup and maintenance. This also includes the operation of two ferries across the state, wetland mitigation and other odds and ends.

This year his budget for all that maintenance is a little over $300 million. Degges says $227 million of that will go to resurfacing state highways, another $70 million for bridge replacements.

“Those are programs and projects that are developed based on a very regimented need,” Degges adds. “We measure the condition of pavements. We know if a bridge is getting old and funky and needs to be replaced. Those aren’t very glamorous. Nobody wants to cut a ribbon on a resurfacing project.”

Different phases of funding

Pressing projects need funding approval through the Legislature. Each year a new list of projects is sent to the legislature as part of the governor’s budget.

TDOT is just now just beginning the process to develop this year’s three-year program. It’s usually finalized by the governor and presented to the Legislature in late March or early April. TDOT did not yet have specifics on what will be funded in the first year of the program, though they are sure there will be many more projects than they have money for.

Once approved, funding is sought in three phases. The first phase is engineering, funded by TDOT, which includes a set of plans to purchase the real estate necessary to build the project.

Degges says the initial engineering work accounts for 10 percent of the total cost of the project.

Next is the right-of-way phase in which the property is acquired to build the road. That’s about 15 percent of the cost.

Construction is the final step, which accounts for 75 percent of the total cost.

“In the Nashville area for instance, Nolensville Road going south out of the county, there are lots of tracts of real estate,” he explains. “We’re in the right-of-way acquisition phase right now. It’s a very important project, but it’s not ready for construction dollars yet because we don’t have all of the right-of-way in hand.”

The projects are broken down in such a way to get a better handle on the cost. The projects listed in their first year are the ones money is budgeted for. The second and third years are not yet funded.

“If I tried to fund an entire project at the early design phase without a set of plans, I would either have to put so much money in the bank that we would build huge cash reserves, or more likely, I would underfund it, and I would have to figure out how to complete the job later,” Degges adds.

“By doing it in these three phases I have a better handle on cost as the project develops.”

TDOT’s three-year plan is updated each year, with the phase of funding for each project changed to reflect its current standing, and new projects added to the list. Projects that had been on the plan but are in the final construction phase of funding are removed. Those projects are listed on TDOT’s website.

Prepare to wait

Getting a road or bridge built from engineering to completion that takes 13 to 15 years nationally. That average is about 12 years in Tennessee, including environmental clearances and acquiring property.

Robertson County Mayor Howard Bradley says the construction phase of a project in Springfield on Tom Austin Highway (US-431) started two years ago and probably has another two left.

“And it had been on the drawing board for 30 years prior to that,” he says. “It’s a long ordeal, and it takes years and years. Leadership changes, and people come on board, and they don’t realize what already has been done to this point. I think that slows the process down, too.”

Degges says TDOT establishes a schedule for all projects so they can be delivered in a certain timeframe. But, if they have to buy a certain amount of land to widen a road, that might take two years to purchase. Or more. In that time they won’t seek to fund the construction so funds won’t sit around losing buying power to inflation.

Meanwhile, the project gets added to the $6 billion backlog of state road and bridge projects.

“The real issue for us on projects is scope, schedule and budget,” Degges points out. “Modifying the scope of a project after you’ve started it is a big issue. It affects the cost of it and the schedule of it. Managing the scope is the first thing we do. We want to make sure that we scope the project correctly, and that we tell the public what we’re going to do.”

Degges says TDOT’s long-range planning division not only looks at work that’s needed next year, but they’re looking for work that’s going to be needed for the next 10, as well as for their 25-year long-range plan.

In partnership with the Metropolitan Planning Organization, TDOT looks at coordinating efforts to make sure they are considering growth in the metropolitan areas of the state and the rural areas.

“I can’t wait until stuff happens,” he says. “I’ve got to try to be prepared and it starts with our planning process.

Collaboration key

Degges says TDOT works closely with communities and organizations across the state in order to have a good understanding of what the needs are. He says they really do prefer to plan and work on projects that are brought forth by the communities.

“It’s a whole lot easier to deliver a transportation project in an area where people say, ‘Hey, TDOT that’s really exactly what we needed,’” he says.

“Thirty years ago it was not uncommon for there to be some suspicion about the motivations for projects. But we’re at a point right now to where there’s just so much need out there.

“We have a lot of growth going on in Middle Tennessee, in particular, but to some extent all across Tennessee, and the need for transportation products is pretty tremendous. I’d rather build a road where somebody will hug my neck than where somebody will try to kick me in the teeth.”

Angie Graves, a Portland-based house cleaner, still isn’t sold on some of the recent high-profile works that have been completed, specifically the work at I-65N and Trinity Lane, which to her seems almost moot considering the bottleneck right before it opens up.

“I just don’t understand why they opened up Trinity Lane and then shove you through a tunnel,” she says. “I don’t think they helped the problem.”

Those aren’t the only daily frustrations she has concerning road construction. The new, completed 109 bypass runs from Gallatin to the south side of Portland, but not around the city and to the state line.

That phase is currently in the right-of-way phase of funding and acquisition so it will be years before she’ll see those cones come down.

She says she also wishes work would be done to widen 109 in Sumner and Wilson counties. A brand new bridge was recently completed in Gallatin, but right after the road goes back down to two lanes right by Reba McIntyre’s property with a practically non-existent shoulder. More traffic has meant more wrecks and no other way to get around it.

“I wish they would build another bridge for the detour,” Graves says. “If they were to make a third bridge that would cross over right there in Hendersonville, they could do regular maintenance on the Old Hickory.”

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