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Growth may mean even more trips to the repair shop

6:18 PM, Apr 14, 2013   |    comments
Bell Road hasn't been repaved since 1989, but a nearly $1.7 million project will resurface the road, repair bridges and add a bike lane. / Dipti Vaidya / The Tennessean
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Nearly 40 percent of the state's roads are considered in poor or mediocre quality, according to a recent national report, and Tennesseans will spend on average $182 a year fixing their cars as a result.

Blown tires. Bad ball joints. And bent rims.

That's the kind of damage Greg and Brenda Griggs see at their East Nashville repair shop.

"I don't know, they are pretty bad," Brenda Griggs said of the roads. "A lot of potholes, which causes a lot of problems with brakes and tires and the front axles on these front-wheel-drive cars."

Still, the state's roads are better than many of its neighbors' and the Tennessee Department of Transportation has proposed spending more than $200 million in fiscal 2014 on repairs and maintenance.

"We are a fix-it-first state," Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said in an interview. "We spend a lot of our federal and state dollars making sure what we have is in a good state of repair."

But as the Middle Tennessee region grows - the number of vehicle miles driven is expected to increase 40 percent by 2035 - keeping up and paying for road repairs could prove challenging.

"It will be in the billions," said Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The MPO prioritizes and plans for how a five-county Middle Tennessee region spends federal transportation funding and embarked on a study this month to figure how much it will cost to maintain the region's existing roads over the next 25 years.

"You have to disclose the full cost of things," Skipper said. "We have to be more transparent with people."

It's a nationwide problem.

"Pavement conditions overall are getting somewhat worse, particularly the urban systems," said Frank Moretti, director of policy and research for TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research organization.

"State and local governments have been constrained fiscally and haven't been able to keep up."

Tennessee earns B-

The American Society of Civil Engineers report - the 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure - released last month gave the nation's roads a D grade.

Although the quality of the nation's roads has improved over the short term with $91 billion in annual investment, that is not enough to reverse a long-term decline, the group concluded. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion in annual investment is needed to improve long-term conditions.

Thirty-eight percent of Tennessee's roads were poor or mediocre and overall they earned a B-minus in the engineers report, much better than many neighboring states. The average Mississippi driver can expect to pay $419 a year on car repairs, while Virginians will pay more than $250, the civil engineers reported.

A separate national study by the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation found that the percentage of urban interstates in Tennessee listed as poor declined 16 percent between 1989 and 2008. The Reason report analyzed federal and state transportation data.

TDOT for fiscal 2014 proposes spending $160 million in federal funds on road resurfacing projects on interstates and state roads. The department also plans to spend $45 million in state funds on paving and maintenance projects.

That work includes the type that is underway on Bell Road between Blue Hole Road and Murfreesboro Pike in Antioch.

Antioch is one of the fastest-growing areas of Nashville over the past decade. All that growth has meant more cars on the road. Bell Road is a major connector for the community but hasn't been repaved since 1989, TDOT spokeswoman Deanna Lambert said by email.

The average number of daily vehicles traveling at Bell Road near Blue Hole Road increased 54 percent over the past two decades to more than 39,000, TDOT records show.

The nearly $1.7 million project will resurface the road, repair bridges and add a bike lane, Lambert said. Construction crews are expected to complete the work by June.

Schroer said all of the state-maintained routes are regularly monitored for quality. But Schroer said he is concerned about the future and how Tennessee will be able to keep up.

The revenue stream used for repairs is not going up, he said.

"Our problem is, we fund our transportation on the number of gallons of gas we burn," Schroer said.

But people are burning less gas as cars become more fuel efficient, he said.

"The horizon for our funding is diminishing quickly. We as a nation have to look at that," he said. "We cannot let (roads and highways) deteriorate."

Growing pains

Eddie Hood, roads superintendent in fast-growing Williamson County, said his department tries to pave county roads every 12 to 15 years, depending on traffic, and works on between 30 and 40 miles every year.

The county spends about $5.4 million a year on road and bridge maintenance.

But with so many people moving in, Hood said, he understands maintaining the roads could prove difficult over the long term.

"I have been here for 32 years and have seen a lot of changes," Hood said. "It is always going to be a challenge when you have that many people on the roads."

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