The Agency’s Latest Blunders 

As Tennessee schoolchildren squeeze themselves into overcrowded classrooms, as our air quality ranks among the nation’s worst on certain days and as politicians call for the closure of the state’s health insurance program to save money, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT)—awash in cash—keeps on paving.

And how pitifully it does it.

Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, perhaps the state’s leading TDOT critic, sent a letter to all state legislators last week telling them that if they were going to be traveling to the University of Tennessee’s opening football game in Knoxville, don’t blame Knoxville for the sorry state of the roads there. “You will likely face some traffic delays getting into town due to TDOT delays and missed deadlines by their contractors,” he advised them. “We regret the mistakes that TDOT has made here and continues to make.”

The department is richly endowed with a direct source of funding that comes from the state’s massive 21-cents-a-gallon gas tax. That money goes directly into building more roads, so that people can drive more, use more gas and pay more gas tax, which causes the department to build more roads, people to drive more, use more gas—you get the picture. Meanwhile, TDOT’s contribution toward alternative forms of transportation—greenways, bike paths, mass transit—is negligible and pathetic. Just look at our countryside, which will have disappeared sometime next week.

Road construction is probably the single largest contributor to the phenomenon of urban sprawl. If you build roads, people will come. Take a look at Cruel Springs, south of Nashville. Years ago, the Cruel Springs mall was nothing but greenfields and agricultural space. Now, it is a mushroomed urban vista of restaurant chains headquartered in Cleveland, national discount retailers putting your local hardware store out of business, big-box office buildings of absolutely no redeeming architectural value and fast food outlets that promise to kill you. All of this is dependent on the automobile. A person was seen jogging in Cruel Springs three weeks ago but hasn’t been heard from since.

TDOT has operated with virtual impunity and in defiance of common sense, as it has plowed through countless communities in Tennessee with expensive, irrational four-lane highway projects. The results have been numerous Cruel Springses—most of them smaller but equally as ugly—across the state. One of the worst road projects has been 840, a ring road that is to encircle Nashville and that promises to turn us into another Atlanta. TDOT made a mockery of conducting environmental studies along the route’s path, and after it began construction, it routinely polluted important waterways. Last week, a federal court judge—Todd Campbell—thankfully ordered all parties involved in 840 construction in the West Harpeth Watershed to stop work immediately. As in, “Put your shovels down, turn off the bulldozers and go home now. You have botched it big time, and you haven’t a clue about how to respect the environment while you do your jobs.”

The problems are so endemic at TDOT, and it has taken our public officials so long to realize the catastrophe, that ultimately you have to conclude TDOT chooses to listen not to the people of Tennessee but to the road builders who cozy up to them. As Mayor Ashe has pointed out, the “public hearings” that TDOT conducts to listen to citizens’ concerns about roadways are nothing but a sham. The commissioner of the department, Bruce Saltsman, is a former road builder himself. The department is not comprised of transportation experts—but rather people looking for a spot to build another road.

TDOT recently repaved Franklin Road, right outside the Nashville Scene office. The project unnecessarily wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars. The road did not need repaving; it was in perfectly decent shape. Every employee of this newspaper had been driving Franklin Road every day, and not a one was complaining. But, flush with money from the gas tax, TDOT repaved Franklin Road anyway, and inconvenienced us in the process, because the road was on a schedule that said it needed repaving.

Would the next governor please do something about TDOT?

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