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TN needs $38 billion to improve roads, schools, water

6:39 AM, Oct 18, 2012   |    comments
Buckets in several rooms and hallways, such as this hallway, are used to catch water from leaking pipes at Antioch Middle School. - Sanford Myers / The Tennessean
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By Duane W. Gang, The Tennessean

Wilson County is one of Tennessee's fastest growing counties, and resident J.M. Kuno sees the effects every day.

When he's not battling traffic congestion near Providence Place, he's wondering when his property will get a sewer line.

"Nobody seems to know," said Kuno, 66, a retired teacher. "That is a concern to me in terms of property values."

His 5.5 acres are just outside Mt. Juliet city limits and back up to the Breckenridge Estates subdivision.

From road and bridge repairs to additional water lines and sewers, Tennessee needs $38 billion in public improvement between now and 2015, a recently released state report shows.

In Middle Tennessee, there is at least $10 billion in projects that state and local officials deem important -- everything from road and bridgework to a $270 million upgrade to Nashville's sewer system.

The report, released by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, is mandated by state law and provides a snapshot of what type of improvement projects are needed. The report covers a five-year period from July 2010 through June 2015.

It's designed to help local officials with short- and long-term planning, match limited funding with critical needs and increase public awareness about a city or county's often aging network of public infrastructure.

By far, transportation projects are the state's biggest need. Across Tennessee, there are nearly 4,000 transportation and utility projects needed totaling $19.1 billion, a 1.5 percent increase over last year's report.

Schools are second, with nearly $8 billion in new construction or renovations needed by 2015, a 4.3 percent jump from last year.

Third on the list is health, safety and welfare projects, such as sewers and water treatment plants. Those total $7.3 billion statewide and are up 6.3 percent from the year before.

Setting priorities

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said transportation needs are among his top concerns.

He cited widening projects for state routes 109, 141 and 231. All three are needed to keep up with the county's expanding population but also to improve safety, he said.

"No. 1, we have to make a decision in the county that we are going to be ahead of the growth," Hutto said. "We have made that commitment to make sure we have proper schools built. We have to do the same thing in transportation."

The state report, he said, helps guide the county's planners.

Sherrie Orange, the chairwoman of the Wilson County tea party, said public improvement needs are the responsibility of local government. She said she just hopes county leaders look at each project individually and are mindful of the costs.

"In these serious economic times, county commissioners must prioritize projects just as a household would also do in their own budgets -- needs versus wants," she said by email.

Lynnisse Roehrich-Patrick, the state commission's executive director, said the report helps state and local officials compare what is needed to how much money they have available to spend.

Nearly two-thirds of the projects in the inventory are not fully funded, the report found. Outside of school renovation and construction, the report found nearly $30 billion in needed work. Only $10.7 billion is for fully funded projects, according to the report.

For instance, between September 2010 and September 2012, the Tennessee Department of Transportation issued $2.2 billion in construction contracts, spokeswoman Beth Emmons said, far less than the overall need.

A weakness

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said Thursday it's important for local officials to know where they need to invest.

"I think every American city no matter what size needs to be constantly investing in infrastructure," Dean said following a Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting. "I think that is one of the weaknesses exposed in our country in the last 10 years."

Dean said Nashville has put money into water and sewer projects and increased the bonding capacity in the water department to pay for such work.

Robertson County Mayor Howard Bradley said it is also important for residents to understand the priorities.

In his county, it's roads and water.

"We have not had a new road constructed in 25 years in Robertson County," Bradley said. "We are really behind. Our ways of getting to Nashville are really the way they have always been."

Bradley said the county is only a drought away from a water crisis.

The city of Springfield is nearing the maximum amount it can draw from the Red River, which means residents are faced with an expensive prospect of finding a new water source, Bradley said.

Roger Lemasters, Springfield's water director, said even though the city can pump up to 10 million gallons of water a day from the river, their pumping station can only handle 8 million.

And currently, he said, the utility uses about 5 million gallons a day, meaning as the city and county grows, they will "be getting to the point where we will be bumping up against" the limits.

Finding new water sources could mean working with Metro Water Services or utilities in Kentucky, he said.

On top of that, the city's waste water treatment plant also faces limitations, Lemasters said. To dispose of future waste, the city would likely have to buy as much as 800 acres and build a land-application disposal system.

Both projects are still many years off but are expensive, topping a combined $76 million, Lemasters said.

Bottom line

Lynnisse Roehrich-Patrick, the executive director of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, said the state needs reports -- 10 since 1996 -- are helpful for rural cities and counties, which may not have a strong capital planning operation of their own.

But she said one particular challenge is getting local officials to accurately report their needs.

"Our experience has been that local officials are more likely not to give us the information if they think they can't do the project," she said.

"We've had to work really hard to explain to them this is about what you need and not what you think you can do. What you think you can do is going to be limited by the resources available to you and you may have needs much greater than that and we won't know it and we won't be able to tell the legislature."

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