Tracking the Recession: A Pier to Nowhere
By Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer
On a busy highway interchange near downtown Nashville , the meaning of President Barack Obama's "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects comes into sharper focus.
Here, where Interstate 40 connects with the Briley Parkway , passing motorists drive by a lone 57-foot-high concrete pier built to support a new ramp for traffic. But the state ran out of money and the ramp has not been built.
"People ask us, 'What is that? Did you make a mistake?'" said Julie Oaks, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation .
The pier in the median of Interstate 40 is a symbol not just of Tennessee 's transportation funding woes, but the nation's. Hundreds of similar planned projects have not been completed because the states don't have the money. Now, with the recession siphoning revenue from states, it could take years before many of the projects go forward.
In Tennessee , the gap between the state's transportation needs and its revenue is about $8 billion over the next 10 years. Nationally, a report released Jan. 28 by the American Society of Civil Engineers said $2.2 trillion for repairs and upgrades is needed over the next five years.
The economic-stimulus package approved Jan. 28 by the U.S. House and making its way to Obama's desk could help make a modest dent in the backlog by accelerating projects such as the Interstate 40/Briley Parkway interchange. The bill includes about $30 billion for so-called shovel-ready infrastructure projects.
Much has been made of the catch phrase "shovel ready" - first used by Obama after the election - but not a lot of people understand what it means. It does not refer to a new highway or bridge project, which usually takes years to plan, design and build. Instead, most of the proposed stimulus projects are those that can be launched in the next 120 days and completed within a few years, such as repaving a road, repairing a bridge or, in Tennessee 's case, finishing a highway interchange.
Seen through the lens of a single project in one state, the potential of the stimulus package is more clear - if officials meet the timetables and spend the money on projects truly ready to go.
Briley Parkway , named after a former mayor who served when the first sections of the north-south road were built in the 1960s, links three interstate highways to Nashville . The interchange at Briley and east-west Interstate 40 is a key route for commuters, tourists headed for the Grand Ole Opry and travelers going to and from Nashville International Airport east of downtown.
Like many urban roads built then, Briley, a two-lane curvy boulevard, soon was overwhelmed by traffic spurred by Nashville 's growth. In 2007, state transportation officials completed the widening of Briley to four lanes in each direction between Interstates 40 and 65, which has required a larger interchange at Interstate 40 to carry traffic between the roadways.
State transportation officials often plan expensive, complicated projects like this one in phases because money is limited.
The Interstate 40/Briley project was planned in two phases. The first involved massive flyover bridges to carry traffic from southbound Briley to eastbound Interstate 40, and from westbound Interstate 40 to the northbound parkway. It cost $44 million.
Before finishing the first phase in June 2005, engineers decided they would build a key part of the second phase in advance to reduce the disruption to motorists: the pier, or support, for a flyover ramp in the middle of Interstate 40.
Today the pier sits unfinished, waiting on the $39 million for the second half of the project, which will complete a ramp carrying motorists between eastbound Interstate 40 and northbound Briley Parkway . Another new ramp will serve travelers going south on the parkway to westbound Interstate 40.
If Congress approves the stimulus package, Tennessee officials said they plan to make completion of the interchange a priority among the 246 road and rail projects they have identified as shovel-ready.
Engineers won't have to draw up new plans for the project. They will only need to amend the state transportation improvement plan, advertise the project for 30 days, open and review bids and award a contract.
"All in all, it will probably take 90 days," said chief state engineer Paul Degges, adding that the construction itself will take 18 to 24 months.
This same review and preparation of projects is occurring in other state capitals and city halls at the moment. State and local officials are meeting with contractors and consultants to advise them of the urgent timetable, which in some cases will require shorter bid advertising and contract awards than usual. Many officials are choosing quick-fix projects such as road and bridge repairs with relatively simple designs.
The Federal Highway Administration and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials have created Web sites to assist in speeding up the work. (See "expediting economic recovery projects" at www.transportation.org and http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/economicrecovery .)
Obama has pushed for the stimulus since last summer to create jobs as fast as possible. The federal highway agency estimates that about 35,000 jobs are supported by every $1.25 billion spent on transportation projects.
House Republicans, who unanimously opposed the package because they wanted more tax cuts, said they were skeptical of the job claims. GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio said it "won't create many jobs, but it will create plenty of programs and projects through slow-moving government spending."
John Horsley, executive director of the state transportation officials' group, said: "We continue to hear the naysayers cast doubt on how quickly this work can begin to help the nation's economic recovery. Their focus is on what's past, and they fail to recognize the ability of Americans to rise to this kind of challenge."
Tennessee officials cannot predict the precise number of jobs created from the Interstate 40/Briley project ,but based on the federal standard, hundreds of jobs could be at stake. Prime contractors use sub-contractors and engineering consultants. The project would give jobs to suppliers of such materials as rock, sand, concrete, steel and asphalt and to manufacturers of beams and bulldozers. Police and flagging companies would be hired for traffic safety control.
The construction workers would draw paychecks, helping put income and sales tax revenue into Tennessee 's treasury, which has a projected shortfall of $800 million to $1 billion. They would spend money at local restaurants, gasoline stations and shops, supporting other jobs.
State officials stress that the stimulus money is not a cure for Tennessee 's budget troubles. But it may quiet Degges' boss, who asks him from time to time when the Interstate 40/Briley interchange is going to be finished. It also may silence critics who see the stimulus as another government boondoggle.
"I get a little concerned that some people think we're inventing new projects," Degges said of the stimulus package. "These are projects we've been wanting to do but haven't had the resources."