Study: TDOT "has relationship issues"

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
The Tennessee Department of Transportation's lack of long-range planning has increased highway congestion, lengthened commutes and contributed to dirtier air, according to a state comptroller's analysis.
Issued on Thursday by the comptroller's office, the report recommends TDOT regularly revise its long-range plan, work with local governments to determine transportation needs, and consider county municipal growth plans during transportation planning projects.
The report says the department needs to improve contact with municipal planning departments and municipal planning organizations in establishing long-range transportation plans. Evidence of highway projects dot Elizabethton and Carter County, where familiar orange and white barrels have lined Highway 91 for more than two years as part of an $11 million four-lane development.
David Ornduff, director of planning and development for the city of Elizabethton, says the city has enjoyed a good relationship with TDOT as new highway projects have developed in the community. He said building a relationship with TDOT requires an understanding of what a community needs and communicating that clearly to the department's local level leadership.
"It takes some years to cultivate those relationships and work well with everyone," said Ornduff, who has been with the city's planning department for more than 30 years. "There are transportation projects coming to the city now."
Chris Schuettler, director of planning for Carter County, says TDOT reps rarely contact his office, particularly if an area has not been zoned to regulate land use. "If it doesn't have any zoning in that area, there isn't a whole lot of discussion with the county planning commission regarding TDOT," said Schuettler.
"At the first part of the Highway 91 project, Stoney Creek didn't have any zoning, so there was very little contact."
The $28 million Northern Connector highway project is a state transportation project creating a 5-lane highway that will bypass heavily traveled West Elk Avenue. Right-of-way access has been secured, and construction of the 5-lane highway is expected to begin next year. The city had hoped the connector would begin at the West G Street and West Elk intersection. Restoration of the Elk Avenue Bridge should be completed by November while maintenance work on the Covered Bridge is expected to begin later this summer.
"The people of TDOT have their job to do; they are in a political powder keg, and they are asked by a lot of people to do many things," said Ornduff. "We realize sometimes we are not going to get everything we want, but we understand that because we know there are things we will get."
Schuettler said communication between his office and TDOT has improved in recent years as the county sought to improve land use planning and cooperation with the department. "It is better than what it was previously during the first 8 years I was here," Schuettler said. "The last five years, it has been pretty progressive, but it could get even better."
The comptroller's report notes the state has "invested heavily" in building and maintaining its highway system, which is funded with a dedicated gasoline tax and has been relatively unscathed by state budget troubles. From fiscal years 1996 to 2001, state funding for TDOT rose 23 percent from $593 million to $732 million. State revenues and state and federal TDOT funding combined jumped 38 percent from 1996 to 2001, according to the report.
The report also states Tennessee has not taken advantage of the extensive flexibility granted to states under federal law to spend federal transportation dollars on transit and alternative modes of transportation. The report found Tennessee flexed less than one percent of available federal transportation funding to transportation alternatives that could help relieve traffic congestion and improve air quality.
According to a recent Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation report, Tennessee did not meet the new standard for ozone (recently upheld in federal court) at most monitoring stations. Despite several indicators of increasing traffic congestion and potential air quality violations, Tennessee spent only about 64 percent of available federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds and 63 percent of available federal Transportation Enhancement Program funds, two sources of flexible funding. Over the same period, Tennessee spent nearly all available National Highway System funds, according to the comptroller's report.
The Comptroller's study further reported that under the Sundquist administration, the department did not support transportation funding decisions with analyses of the costs and benefits of various alternatives, and often did not consider more than one solution to transportation issues. "In fact, department officials did not consider other transportation alternatives or priorities when they established State Highway System plans each year," the report reads.
The report cites a TDEC analysis that states that unless Tennessee reduces the growth in vehicle miles traveled, several areas of the state will be out of compliance with new federal air quality standards as soon as they become effective. Failure to reduce mobile source emissions could prevent the state from permitting new industries, power plants, or other air pollution sources, significantly limiting opportunities for economic growth, the comptroller's report reads.