TN Transportation, Environmental Departments Reach Accord on Road Building

Fri March 12, 2004 - National Edition

NASHVILLE, TN (AP) Gov. Phil Bredesen joined his transportation and environment commissioners March 10 to sign a new $10 million agreement that protects the environment while building roads.

The 48-page document replaces a court decree signed in December 2002 and a tentative agreement reached last year among the two departments.

"The agreement incorporates and clarifies in very simplistic terms the expectations of all those involved," said Betsy Child, commissioner of the Department of Environment and Conservation. "Road construction and environmental protection are not exclusive terms."

The agreement puts an official end to years of rancor and court battles among the departments over erosion control and other environmental problems with road projects. Since 1999, the Department of Transportation has been assessed $4.5 million in fines for violating environmental regulations.

"I’ve always known that TDOT and TDEC were filled with good, talented people with the best of intentions. I also think in some ways they were organizations with relationships and processes that were broken. Obviously when one state agency sues another state agency, something is wrong,’ said Bredesen, who vowed during the 2002 campaign to change TDOT’s road-building-at-all-costs culture.

Bredesen said he is pleased with the new consent order but cautioned that he expects the departments to follow through on their commitments, "and we’ll all be watching."

The agreement will require the Department of Transportation to obtain environmental permits before starting a project, put storm water and erosion control plans in place, and hire quality control teams and erosion specialists.

Also, TDOT will have to give the Department of Environment and Conservation $350,000 for supplemental projects during the next two years and provide the department’s state water pollution controldivision with $200,000 within the next month, along with additional fines if there are violations.

The department estimates the agreement’s provisions will add about 2.3 percent more to the cost of each project, but TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely said in the long run it "not only helps the environment but saves taxpayers money."

"It only makes good business to begin a project when it’s designed properly from an environmental standpoint rather than being forced to stop midway to make design changes," he said.

Activists who sued the state over environmental concerns with construction of the southern loop of State Route 840 –– forcing a lengthy and expensive delay –– are thrilled with the deal. They also will be watching to make sure all the requirements are met.

"Is it a perfect world? No, but when you negotiate with people it never is," said Gene Cotton, an activist in Williamson County who fought TDOT for seven years over the Nashville bypass.

James Weaver, an attorney for the Tennessee Road Builders Association, said that bringing all the interested parties together "was a long, hard process but one that was worth the wait."

He said the document is "not just 48 pages of fluff. The order has real teeth in it. If contractors intentionally violate the law they’re not going to be able to participate in TDOT programs."