State Leaders Address Lamar Congestion

By Bill Dries

Dr. Mike Golias, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, has been studying GPS data from trucks in the Memphis and Nashville areas to learn more about routes and the other critical issue the trucking industry faces – how long it takes to get from one place to another.

The Lamar Avenue corridor is a major traffic nightmare that state leaders are attempting to address. However, it could still be years before a solution is realized.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The GPS data examined by Golias, a researcher with the university’s Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute, includes enough information to track average speeds on a particular route.

And among the maps Golias showed at the sixth annual Intermodal Freight Conference this week at the University of Memphis was one of Memphis with a bright red line along Lamar Avenue.

The red line indicates an average speed of 30 miles per hour or less.

Just before Golias spoke to the gathering of 200 at the FedEx Institute of Technology, Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer talked about Lamar Avenue as well.

Creating interchanges along the city’s major freight corridor to replace intersections will probably end up being a $1 billion project for the state, Schroer said. And half of that estimate is in right-of-way acquisition.

“We probably won’t get it done in my lifetime or maybe during my tenure as TDOT commissioner,” Schroer said.

The simplest state road project can easily take a decade from planning to construction. Nevertheless, Schroer touts Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration as the first to attempt to move plans for Lamar Avenue into action.

“We’re the first administration to try to tackle Lamar Avenue. Everybody wanted to talk about it before. But nobody wanted to do anything with it,” he said. “We’ve decided that we are going to start putting money away.”

Design work is under way, and while he was in Memphis this week, Schroer said he talked with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who has pledged to talk with property owners along the corridor who might be approached in the right-of-way acquisition talks.

Schroer acknowledged road projects take far too long to get from a proposal to a reality. One of several stories he tells to make the point involves a bypass in Dickson, Tenn., that was first discussed in 1998 with a $300,000 study and later came in with a cost estimate of $46 million.

“What we used to do at TDOT was we used to let the local people tell us how to fix their problems,” he said. “We didn’t really even pay attention.”

The state rethought the project much later and found improved traffic signals and intersections would accomplish the same goal at a cost of $1.6 million. It took 14 years and $6 million to get to the $1.6 million solution.

“We can’t afford to do that anymore,” said Schroer, who is reviewing 18 road projects with the idea that some will probably be downsized. “We don’t have the money to do it.”

Part of the reason is how Tennessee finances road projects and other infrastructure.

Tennessee is a rarity in how it pays for state road projects. It is one of only five “pay as you go” states where roads are financed with money set aside, not with general obligation bonds or money from the state’s general fund revenues.

The financing comes from the state’s gasoline tax revenues and those are dropping as cars become more fuel-efficient. For the current fiscal year, Schroer had a $1.7 billion budget, down $100 million from the previous year as a result of the drop in gas tax revenue.

Schroer presents his budget proposal to Haslam Wednesday in Nashville as the administration begins budget hearings. He is more vocal than he was last year about the method for funding state road projects and infrastructure, which he says are “going to hell in a hand basket” because there is too little money for maintenance.

“We’re getting funded with an archaic system,” he said at the conference. “We’re going the wrong direction every single day.”

Schroer favors a “user fee” of some kind. Haslam recently agreed to let Schroer explore the idea of a toll bridge in the Chattanooga area over the Tennessee River. But Shroer said there should also be a broader national discussion about funding infrastructure including road projects.

“It’s a national crisis that nobody is talking about,” he said.