TDOT to Pave Over Mayor 

Victor Ashe learns that roadbuilders fight back

Victor Ashe learns that roadbuilders fight back

The moral of the story may be this: When you fight the Tennessee Department of Transportation, they can always dump tons of hot asphalt on your head.

That’s certainly been Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe’s experience. After publicly criticizing TDOT and the governor for spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on roads while leaving the rest of state government to languish, the state recently announced plans to build a controversial road project near downtown Knoxville that Ashe had long opposed.

Ashe learned the project was being fast-forwarded from a local newspaper reporter who called to ask him about it. “That’s a heck of a way to do business. You’re gonna put a road through a city and you don’t even tell the mayor or the mayor’s engineering department,” Ashe scoffs.

Known as the South Knoxville Connector, the road is a four-mile, $36 million project, an expenditure that “even people in Washington would blush at,” Ashe says. TDOT commissioner Bruce Saltsman had assured Ashe in a Sept. 21, 2001, letter that the roadway was being put on the back burner. “We have many other issues of concern in state government at this time,” Saltsman wrote, “and frankly can use the funds elsewhere on other highway projects.”

In October and November, meanwhile, Ashe became the poster child for anti-TDOT sentiment, ripping the agency right and left over its haphazard management of projects in his city, its decision to cut down two 250-year-old oak trees near a Knoxville highway exit and—last but not least—its massive consumption of gas tax dollars at a time when the rest of state government is having serious financial troubles. For good measure, he ripped the governor for siding with TDOT’s bloated budget and the roadbuilding lobby that wants to preserve it.

Much of the state’s 21-cent gas tax is dedicated to roads. In fact, $421 million in gas tax proceeds will go toward road construction and repair this year. But schools, parks and other departments are funded from a “general fund.” These other departments must compete with each other for the same dollars, and they have all suffered as the state’s budget has declined. Roads, meanwhile, have gotten along nicely because of their dedicated funding source.

To environmentalists, urban planners and people who have fought roads coming through their farms and neighborhoods, Ashe’s words have been manna from heaven. His comments have been heavily covered in daily media, and the issue is almost certain to become an important part of the ongoing gubernatorial campaign. Importantly, Ashe isn’t a fringe nutcase—he’s a fourth-term Republican mayor who has also served lengthy terms in the state Senate. All of this meant that the Sundquist administration was having to listen to him.

But they obviously didn’t like what they heard. Now Ashe has got the road he didn’t want.

“I think the linkage is as clear as the nose on your face,” Ashe says.

TDOT spokesman Luanne Grandinetti, meanwhile, denied the department pushed the project ahead because of Ashe’s statements. “There was so much support coming from the legislative delegation that Commissioner Saltsman put it back on the priority list.”

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