Tennessee DOT Commissioner halts I-69 project

By Chris Spahr

In December, Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer announced that TDOT would stop work on the segment of Interstate 69 in western Tennessee. Citing the high cost of the next segment of the so-called “NAFTA Highway,” Schroer pointed out the need to fund safety programs and maintain existing infrastructure.

Up to this point, Tennessee has spent $200 million in building its part of the national corridor. Because of a lack of commitments for further federal funding, TDOT would need to pay $1.5 billion to build 65 miles of new highway between Memphis and Dyersburg. The $1.5 billion cost estimate comes at a time when Tennessee is only receiving $600 million in federal funding for heavy construction, widening interstates, and state highway improvements. Continued funding of I-69 would mean less money available to repair and replace old bridges, implement safety programs, fund industrial access programs, or resurface crumbling roads.  “To spend that on one project—regardless of its location—would not only be a disservice to all Tennesseans, but it would also be downright irresponsible and potentially dangerous,” stated Schroer in a January 8 guest column in the Memphis-based Commercial Appeal.

Tennessee is one of only five states in the nation with no transportation debt. Commissioner Schroer would like to see Congress dedicate money specifically for the I-69 project not only in Tennessee, but also for the project in all seven states through which the highway is currently being built.

This happens as Governor Rick Perry of Texas touts the early progress of I-69 in Texas.  Facing funding concerns to complete the $16 billion project, Perry has called for allocating $3.7 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for infrastructure projects and allocating to transportation $1.3 billion in gas tax money, which currently funds the Department of Public Safety.

In Kentucky, the state plans to press ahead with the I-69 project, regardless of what neighboring states decide to do, while in Indiana $283.1 million of the $791 million in 2013 federal road funding has been allocated to the continuation of the I-69 project.  The biggest problem facing the project in Kentucky and Indiana is determining how to fund construction of a new bridge over the Ohio River between the two states.

Without dedicated federal funding, all the states will face a struggle to maintain their existing transportation networks while tackling the mounting costs of a new giant interstate.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.