Review of Unpopular TN Road Projects Finds Mistakes

Fri August 29, 2003 - Southeast Edition

CHATTANOOGA, TN (AP) A review of 15 contentious highway construction projects, part of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s promise to rid the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) of an arrogant image, found planning flaws and a mind-set for wasting money.

The review by the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Center for Transportation Research found examples of TDOT failing to get adequate public input, failing to justify some planned construction, giving inadequate attention to alternatives and ignoring the environment.

TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely said recently he has assigned internal project review teams to “carefully examine” the assessments and report to him in a few weeks.

“I hope to make decisions, project by project, within the next 60 days or so,” Nicely said.

Bredesen has said unfavorable assessments might be reason enough to end some of the projects, which carry a combined price tag of approximately $2 billion.

Before the review was released, the governor said TDOT would keep money diverted from any project that is changed or abandoned.

“Those would all be TDOT funds. They would just be choosing not to spend them in that particular area,” said Bredesen, who took office in January.

In assessing the 15 projects, the reviewers graded 45 issue areas as unsatisfactory and 41 issues areas as satisfactory. The $200,000 review was to assess whether all interests were considered in planning the projects but not to address whether the construction was needed.

Bruce Saltsman, who was TDOT commissioner when the projects began, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

TDOT’s planned upgrade of U.S. 321 in Greene County scored unsatisfactory in every area assessed. The reviewers also concluded that a planned upgrade of U.S. 64 in Bradley County was not needed but was being started because money was available, which “raises the question of fiscal responsibility.”

When the UT review panel held a public “listening session” on the U.S. 64 project at Cleveland, no one spoke favorably for it. State Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, told the panel that “no one ever asked for” the road project.

The reviewers said TDOT’s planned Wolf River Parkway work in Memphis “failed to recognize the significance of the barrier posed by the Riverwoods State Natural Area.”

TDOT did a satisfactory job of involving the public in planning the James White Parkway in Knoxville, the review said, but an unsatisfactory job on adequately addressing public concerns about the design. The Knoxville Beltway got an unsatisfactory for public involvement, with the review saying, “TDOT allowed special interest groups and individuals to divide the community.”

Bredesen promised during last year’s campaign that he would change TDOT, calling it arrogant and unresponsive to communities and citizens. The issue was cited as helping Bredesen carry Knoxville in last November’s election.

TDOT spokeswoman Kim Keelor said that employees who were involved in planning the 15 projects were “doing their best and were earnestly following procedures.”

Despite the numerous unsatisfactory findings, she declined to describe the review as generally critical of TDOT decision making.

“You’d have to look at it project by project,” she said. “It’s hard to give an umbrella comment.”

She said Nicely has promised to expand TDOT’s “level of community input before a project is moved forward … That was one of the areas that was problematic in the past.”

UT Transportation Center director Steve Richards has said the four-month effort was intended to point out “recurring problems and shortcomings” to help TDOT avoid repeating them.

The UT Center specializes in studies related to roads, highway safety, transportation policy, regulation and mass transit.

Kent Starwalt, executive director of the Tennessee Road Builders Association, said the reviewers decided that TDOT “didn’t work well with the involved citizens. Everything was unsatisfactory with citizen input.

“How do you gauge that?” he said. “Anybody who is going to have their land impacted in a road project is going to be unhappy. Unfortunately you can’t decide transportation policy on the fact that some people are going to be disappointed.”

Starwalt said the association doesn’t have a position on any of the projects.

“We are pleased the commissioner is going to make a decision relatively quickly,” he said.

“Let’s just get on with it.”