The purpose of this blog is to help people who are involved with, or are curious about how the process of getting funding for road and bridge projects works. So from time to time I think that it is appropriate that I give you, the reader, my best educated guess on what the next few years is going to be like.
Keep in mind that this is my best guess on where I see things going. Be sure to take anything that I say with a grain of salt….
- New Highway Bill by October 2014: No matter what your political stripes, I think that we can safely say that the current Congress has not been exactly inspiring. Congress passed only a small two year (instead of 4 year) highway bill that runs out next year. This shorter leash on funding is definitely causing big headaches right now for TDOT trying to budget out their projects, and is only going to cause even bigger problems for the Cities and Counties with their funding problems.My prediction is that Congress will not pass the comprehensive 4 year Highway Bill next year that we all need. I am not exactly clear on how safe roads and bridges have become a political issue, but I guess it has.
So what does that mean? It means that instead Congress will force TDOT and other Department of Transportations to limp along on a series of continuing resolutions every so many weeks and months. In practice this will cause delays on larger projects, cause them to cost more due to inflation, and generally dry up funding for all projects big and small.
My unfortunate prediction is that Congress has no appetite for spending money on transportation. This may drag on for years until they decide that transportation is a priority once again. There are a lot of things that only Congress can come up with the money to fund.
- Decreased Transportation funding at City and County Level: I am privileged to work with County Highway Superintendents, Mayors, City Recorders and other highly dedicated public servants. I help them to try and figure out long term solutions to their transportation infrastructure needs.I am here to tell you that their budgets are cut to the bone. If you think that there is all sorts of waste in their budgets, and they just need to cut taxes and “tighten their belts” to run “smarter and more efficiently”. Well, I think that you are in dreamy world.
At one time there might have been fluff in their budgets, and unnecessary staff on the payroll, but not today. Today every City, Town, and County is running on a shoestring budget with key people responsible for what a half dozen were doing a decade ago.
Taxes, especially the gas taxes that County Highway Departments depend on, are flat or falling. Changing driving habits, more fuel efficient vehicles, and the way the gas tax is set up will all contribute to shrinking revenue’s for Counties.
- Bottom Line: The Roads Don’t Care. By this I mean that the roads and bridges that are getting more use and being forced to last longer than they were ever designed for don’t care about the excuse about why there is no money to repair or replace them.In the past few days I have seen on the news where the Chief Engineer, Mr. Paul Degges has been at the site of several bridge overpasses for I-40 going through downtown Nashville. The problem? They are starting to fall apart. The cost? Something like $60 million or so. Does TDOT have that kind of funding laying around? Not really.
Keep in mind that this is the major east-west interstate for our country, going through the State Capitol for the State of Tennessee, which has some of the best infrastructure in the nation. And it is falling apart.
I bet it is the smaller to medium sized bridges out in the rural areas that are getting worse every day, that keep Mr. Degges up at night. He knows about them, and he knows that he doesn’t have the funding to replace them.
Inherently road and bridge projects take a lot of time to go through the planning, engineering, and right of way phases. Bigger projects can easily take decades before you ever get to the Construction phase. The key thing to remember is that you have to continually put these projects into the pipeline if you ever hope to see them come out the other side. Right now fewer projects are being added into the pipelines with TDOT, and local governments. This means that the current funding problems will have a ripple effect that we will see for years and years to come.
Solutions? I really do hate to sound all gloom and doom. But I have got to call it the way that I see it. So what to do?
- Update your transportation/land use master plans. This way you have the best information to base your decisions on. Hard data is a better way to plan than a bunch of wild guesses. Also a component of these master plans are the public meetings that are put on as part of the process. This gives you a way to inform your communities on the hard choices ahead.
These master plans are not cheap, but they cost less than a resurfacing project. They also cost less than misplaced priorities, and wasted opportunities.
- Start making the hard choices now and let everyone know. I think that people have a greater respect if they are told the truth, even if it hurts, over having someone candy coat problems. If you can only fund 3 projects over the next five years, then pick those top 3 projects. Let everyone know that you deliberately didn’t pick the other 50 projects.
I wish I had some better answers but I don’t. I am seeing public servants across Tennessee come to the conclusion that there is no help on the way. Many of them have been treading water for the past couple of years. I think now the collective wisdom is that there is no new revenue on the way, their budgets will continue to shrink, their populations continue to grow, and their roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate.
Buckle up and plan accordingly.