President Biden's infrastructure bill: How the funds could be put to work in East Tennessee

Tennessee leaders are eagerly awaiting the $1.2 trillion nationwide infrastructure-investment bill set for a final vote before the end of this month.

President Joe Biden's proposal, already approved in the Senate, is expected to deliver a $7 billion windfall for the Volunteer State's roads and bridges. Nationwide, the bill promises a $110 billion investment in roadwork.

That will sweeten Tennessee's annual $2.3 billion distribution of federal and state dollars set aside for repairs and new construction of highways, bridges and related infrastructure, according to a state analysis of the bill's funding formula.

"It's a lot of money but it will be spread across the state," Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright said, of the bill. "It is really important."

East Tennessee is experiencing population and job growth, putting more strain on its roads in the next few decades.

By 2045, an additional 200,000 people are expected to call a six-county region around Knoxville home, which would bring the total population in the area to just over 1 million residents, according to estimates by the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) in its most recent mobility plan.

Highway and pedestrian safety programs and electric-vehicle charging stations are also included, as well as increased cybersecurity and climate-change protections.

The leading drivers for roadway renovation and construction are traffic safety, congestion and economic development. And all of those issues are being tested here.

Meanwhile, statewide traffic fatalities increased 10% this year, reaching just over 1,000 deaths so far in 2021. That follows a nearly 5% uptick of traffic-related deaths in 2020.

The share of pedestrian fatalities rose in recent years to become about one in every five traffic-related deaths today, according to Greater Nashville Regional Council.

More than roads

In 2017, Tennessee identified $10 billion worth of delayed infrastructure work in need of funding to improve safety, decrease congestion and spur economic development.

The legislature then passed the Improve Act, recognizing nearly 1,000 needed roadway projects that were not financed. To pay for the heavy to-do list, state leaders approved a fuel-tax increase now in effect that added $250 million per year to the fund.

Now, the state distributes $2.3 billion a year based on requests from local leaders.

Nearly half of the projects identified in the Improve Act have since been started. But the cost of unfunded work is still about $10 billion because of inflationary increases and ongoing maintenance, Bright said.

The Knoxville TPO is responsible for aligning regional transportation needs with federal and state funding. Its 2045 Mobility Plan, published in July, identified projects that would address peak hour congestion, safety and needed connections.

The plan outlines a few major reconfiguration projects on the horizon:

    The I-40/I-75/Campbell Station Road interchange, a $42 million project estimated to be completed by 2030

    The I-40/I-75/Watt Road interchange, a $22 million project estimated to be completed by 2026

    The I-75/I-640/I-275 interchange, estimated to cost $88 million and be completed by 2035

There are 150 projects outlined in the 2045 Mobility Plan. You can find a full list at

Other smaller projects include widening Lovell Road from Cedardale Lane to Middlebrook Pike; constructing a new four-lane highway on the Pellissippi Parkway extension from Old Knoxville Highway to Lamar Alexander Parkway; widening Washington Pike to four lanes; and adding a center turn lane to a 1-mile stretch of Chapman Highway.

"On top of that, we have economic development projects over and above the Improve Act – Amazon, Oracle, the Ford plant, Smith & Wesson," Bright said. "We have to support those as far as having roadways to these facilities opening across the state."

Gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson Brands is moving its headquarters to Blount County, bringing $125 million and 750 jobs to East Tennessee. Amazon is opening facilities in Alcoa and Knoxville.

The infrastructure bill recognizes the increasingly central role of household access to a reliable broadband internet connection.

School and office closures during the pandemic left families without broadband access unable to participate in basic social and economic functions.

Tennessee recently increased broadband investment to help disconnected rural areas. Any additional federal funds in the pending bill will accelerate that statewide push.

In East Tennessee, the Knoxville Utilities Board is adding broadband internet to its portfolio of utilities and has estimated the service would cost about $65 a month for residential customers in its footprint.

This month, Gov. Bill Lee announced a $500 million broadband boost from the American Rescue Plan and encouraged local communities to also invest federal COVID-19 recovery funds by matching the state's contribution.

"$400M will be used to build out broadband infrastructure, and $100M will aid in broadband adoption," said Brooxie Carlton, assistant commissioner of community and rural development. "This funding and the low match rate make it an opportune time for broadband providers to complete their build outs and to meet the needs of unserved communities."

'Long overdue'

The infrastructure bill would deploy $65 billion for new broadband access lines, though it's not yet clear how much of that would come to Tennessee.

Amtrak anticipates a $66 billion boost to expand railways in order to compete with long-distance air and car travel trips. The government-supported rail provider hopes to restart service in Tennessee, making connections to the north and south.

The U.S. Senate approved Biden's infrastructure proposal in August. But party leaders delayed a final vote in order to lobby for another $3.5 trillion bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would call for a final infrastructure vote this month.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said is confident the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill has ample support.

"This bill is long overdue and will inevitably pass before Thanksgiving, I think," Cooper said. "It is the biggest bill since the interstate-highway bill in the 1950s. Today we take the interstates for granted but, before the 1950s, there weren’t any 4-lane roads anywhere.

"America was really built on the major projects – the Erie Canal, transcontinental railroad, electric grid, phone system, airports. This isn't spending, this is investment."

GNRC Director Michael Skipper said he is hopeful the bill will allow local plans for deferred projects to go forward.

"People don't realize how old some of this infrastructure is," Skipper said. "We get to a level of specificity to understand how we're growing as a region. We prioritize goals and fund the ones we have money for, but keep our eye out for the others."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Brenna McDermott, Sandy Mazza

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Published October 22, 2021