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A smart fix for Tennessee's bridges

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By Commissioner GERALD NICELY Tennessee Department of Transportation

Across the nation interest rates are at historic lows. Many Tennesseans are taking advantage of the low prices now to buy a new home or refinance their existing home.  Many others are taking this opportunity to finance needed repairs to their homes, like a new roof or a new addition. What is true for home owners is also true for TDOT. With interest rates and construction costs low, now is the time to invest in the health of our transportation system. 

Tennessee has more than 300 structurally deficient bridges on our state system, which includes our interstates, U.S. highways and state routes. Earlier this year, we proposed a solution to replace or repair 200, or two-thirds, of those bridges ranked as structurally deficient. The bridges will be replaced in three years, a process that would normally take 12 or more years to complete. What's more, many of the bridge projects are extremely expensive jobs the state would otherwise be unable to build, including seven bridge projects costing more than $20 million each. 

This proposal brings more than just safer bridges to our state. It also will result in approximately 15,000 direct and indirect jobs for the people of Tennessee. This record investment in the health of Tennessee's transportation system would be paid for using general obligation bonds, which would be paid back over the next several years using federal revenues that are dedicated to bridge replacement and repair. The result will be better bridges for Tennessee and more funds available to assist local governments with repairing their aging bridges.

We hope Tennessee will continue its practice of financing transportation infrastructure primarily on a pay as you go basis. However, we feel that this very modest bonding proposal will allow the state to make needed repairs while material costs and interest rates are low. To wait will only mean our needs will continue to grow and the price tag will continue to increase. This plan is dependent on the passage of the Governor's budget by the Tennessee General Assembly. Failure to pass this bonding proposal will mean TDOT cannot address some of these needs and will continue to place band-aids on bridges that need more serious attention.

We should be clear that TDOT is not abandoning the pay-as-you-go system. But the reality is that waiting until current year funding is available to make these vital improvements will likely result in a decline in the overall condition of the state's bridges.  TDOT and the federal government are both struggling with declining revenues and costs are expected to accelerate as the economy recovers. 

Nothing is ever accomplished by sitting idle. Tough times call for decisive and bold action. For the safety of the public and the health of our overall transportation system, we hope the General Assembly will approve the Governor's proposed budget and help keep Tennesseans in Motion.

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