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VOL. 132 | NO. 96 | Monday, May 15, 2017

Lamar Avenue, Austin Peay Highway Projects on Tap for Fiscal 2018

By Sam Stockard

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With a gas-tax increase approved as part of the governor’s IMPROVE Act, Shelby County will see several projects take off over the next three years, including the much-anticipated Lamar Avenue widening.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation rolled out plans this week for 101 projects in 40 counties costing $2.6 billion, with an estimated $42 million for construction of the first leg of the Lamar Avenue widening in fiscal 2018 and two phases of right-of-way acquisition.

Funding for a $20 million project to widen Austin Peay Highway next fiscal year is in the mix, as well, followed by another stretch of work on Austin Peay to Tipton County in fiscal 2020.

Four-cent increases in gas and diesel taxes in fiscal 2018, plus a 3-cent increase in alternative fuel taxes, are expected to bring in $150 million next year. Gas and diesel taxes will rise 7 cents and 10 cents a gallon over three years, to 27.4 cents and 28.4 cents.

With the combination of those increases and a $120 million general fund transfer to the transportation fund, returning money taken in 2007, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has money to embark on a more “robust” three-year program, it said in a statement.

“Many of these projects would not have moved forward for several years without this additional infrastructure investment,” Gov. Bill Haslam said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris rewrote the governor’s legislation to push it to passage, a combination of fuel-tax and vehicle-fee increases softened by tax reductions. Throughout legislative negotiations, Norris sold it as a “safety” plan and passed an additional bridge replacement package.

“I know of places in Tennessee where bridges are going to be replaced so fire engines and school buses can get down the road,” said Norris, a Collierville Republican, noting some bridges in rural areas can handle school buses only because they have one axle on the bridge at a time.

Shelby County’s urban Democratic lawmakers, though most wound up voting for the IMPROVE Act, hesitated at first because of its effect on the working class, including a $5 increase in vehicle registration fees.

KAREN CAMPER

Rep. Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat, said she supported the bill after Memphis lost at least two business deals in the last seven years due to poor road conditions.

“They went from right along Lamar Avenue, went from Memphis right down to Olive Branch over the line,” Camper said.

If Memphis leaders had been able to negotiate with road improvement projects on the horizon, the outcome could have been different, she said.

Camper, of District 87, was one of the few legislators to speak about the effect of raising vehicle registration fees, though she wasn’t necessarily opposed. At the time, an amendment to the IMPROVE Act would have taken general fund money, with some $2 billion worth of extra money in the budget plan, to pump funds into the transportation projects.

“I just wanted to make sure people understood everybody’s going to be impacted by this, the average Joe particularly is going to be impacted by it,” Camper said, adding ultimately she felt the “comprehensive” package was the right move to make.

Democrats also were adamant about lowering the sales tax on food, and the final plan removed a half-cent more than the governor’s first proposal, lowering it to four cents from five cents in fiscal 2018.

“Of course there was some doubt about it, until we got everything vetted and worked out. I’m looking forward to those projects happening,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat.

None of the road projects in the first slate are in his District 98, but he said people there will benefit from the Austin Peay project.

He pointed out the final plan provided people with a net savings, about $2 a month between the higher gas tax and the lower food tax, which enabled him to support it.

Parkinson pointed out the House also negotiated shifting $55 million in the governor’s budget plan into county street funds, which could help fix potholes and improve sidewalks.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, one of only two Democrats to vote against the IMPROVE Act, said “some good” usually comes out of any legislation.

“But the big picture here was being fair to all of my constituents, and an extra tax burden through a gas tax without adequate relief from the other tax burdens, in particular the food tax, is unfair,” said Hardaway, who represents District 93. “So I’m always happy when we can make progress through transportation because transportation is a critical part of economic development. But there was and is a fairer way to do it.”

The three-year program includes:

• Estimated $42 million for construction on 1.4 miles of Lamar Avenue from the Mississippi state line to south of Shelby Drive in fiscal 2018.

• Right-of-way acquisition on 1.9 miles for Lamar Avenue widening from south of Shelby Drive to the Raines Road/Perkins Road interchange in fiscal 2018, an estimated $125.3 million construction project.

• Right-of-way acquisition on 1.8 miles for Lamar Avenue widening from Raines Road/Perkins Road interchange to Getwell Road in fiscal 2019, an estimated $81.4 million construction project.

• Estimated $20 million for construction on 4.7 miles of Austin Peay Highway from Paul Barrett Parkway to east of Kerrville-Rosemark Road in fiscal 2018.

• Construction on 4.7 miles of Austin Peay Highway from east of Kerrville-Rosemark Road to the Tipton County line in fiscal 2020.

• An estimated $42 million for construction on the interchange at Interstate 240 and Airways Boulevard in fiscal 2020.

• Right-of-way acquisition on six miles for I-240 from I-55 to the Midtown interchange at I-40 in fiscal 2020, an estimated $51 million project.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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