Infrastructure info

After hitting several congressional roadblocks, President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is primed for passage this month. Based on the budget’s blueprints, Tennessee is expected to receive more than $8 billion in federal funding over the next five years. The state legislature will decide the final fate of the funds during the legislative session in January. However, the legislature will be driven by statewide assessments and recommendations of state agencies and interest groups.

Here’s a rundown of where the funds could go:

$5.8 billion for federal highway programs and $302 million for bridge work

The infrastructure plan will boost the Tennessee Department of Transportation's annual budget for hard infrastructure by about 20 percent, according to Commissioner Clay Bright.

He says the state of Tennessee typically expects to receive about 2 percent of the funding in the federal government’s infrastructure budget, which equates to about $1 billion annually for TDOT. Based on the breakdown of the new infrastructure plan — which includes $5.8 billion for federal highway aid plus $302 million for bridge replacement over the next five years — TDOT will receive a little more than $1.2 billion a year for the next five years in federal funding, according to Bright.

Bright says the funding will be appropriated evenly across the state and in rural and urban areas. The specific distribution will largely be driven by the projects outlined in TDOT’s three-year transportation plan, which was mapped out with the assumption that the state would continue to receive the routine $1 billion in federal infrastructure funding it has in years past. The fate of the additional annual $200 million will be determined by the state legislature, which is responsible for passing the state budget. The infrastructure and finance committees in the legislature work closely with TDOT to guide their calculations and decisions. (See TDOT's High Priority Projects in Nashville at the bottom of this story.)

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) and U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Clarksville) both supported an increase in spending on hard infrastructure. In fact, it was the only line item in the bill Green supported.

“Roads and bridges should have been the only thing we spent money on,” Green tells the Scene. “That has to be done. But the rest of this spending is irresponsible. If we keep adding to the federal deficit at this rate, the United States will be even more vulnerable to China than it already is. People should be scared of that.”

$630 million for public transportation

As part of the infrastructure bill, Tennessee will receive $630 million for public transportation. Bright says the funding is key in maintaining the state’s three public rail systems: the Nashville WeGo Star, the Memphis trolleys and Chattanooga Railway, which combined provide more than 700,000 rides each year.  

A vocal advocate for expanding public transportation and expansion of mass transit, Cooper celebrated this grant. Conversely, Green opposed this spending and says expanding the public transit system is not a high priority. Instead, he believes the money should have been added to the hard infrastructure portion of the budget.

$88 million for electric vehicle charging stations

This is the first infrastructure bill in U.S. history that includes funding for electric vehicle charging stations. Bright says the $88 million appropriation will complement and support the Fast Charge TN Network sponsored by TDOT, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The three agencies have invested a combined $20 million to add 50 fast charging stations across the state. For reference, there are currently only 23 fast charging public stations in the state. Ultimately, the Fast Charge initiative aims to place  stations every 50 miles of interstate.

In Cooper’s eyes, the installation of EV charging stations is one of the first steps in cultivating green infrastructure. He believes Tennesseans won’t consider electric vehicles if there is no existing infrastructure to support drivers. However, Green was adamantly opposed to the provision. He says it’s not the government’s responsibility to install or purchase EV charging stations; he believes the duty falls on the private sector. Government-funded EV charging stations are “communist,” according to Green.

“Why doesn’t the government open gas stations and tire stations too?" says Green. "We’ve seen how well government programs run. Look at the VA or the DMV."

$100 million for broadband

This provision will provide $100 million to help build broadband coverage across the state, including extending access to the more than 402,000 Tennesseans who currently lack it. It will also increase the Affordability Connectivity Benefit from $30 to $50. The benefit acts as a subsidy for low-income families who struggle to afford internet access, which more than 2 million people qualify for in the state.

Cooper supported the bill’s broadband measure and believes it is crucial in closing the digital divide.

“Nobody’s internet service is $30,” Cooper says. “Even dial-up is probably more than $30. Raising the benefit will allow people to actually afford internet service.”

Green’s feelings toward the funding are similar to his stance on EV charging stations and align with his ideology that “government should not do anything that the private sector can do better.”

$17 million for wildfire prevention

With $17 million for wildfire prevention, TDEC will be able to continue to conduct controlled burns and other preventive measures to protect the landscape.

Cooper calls the expense essential and references the devastation caused physically and financially by the 2016 Smoky Mountain wildfires. He says the state cannot afford to neglect preventive spending and measures. Green acknowledges the importance of wildfire prevention; but he says the federal government simply can’t afford to spend the money.

$21 million to protect against cyber attacks

The $21 million afforded to protect against cyber attacks has more arbitrary applications than other allotments in the budget, according to both Cooper and state Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin), the chair of the House’s transportation subcommittee.

Cooper would like to see Albert sensors purchased for each of Tennessee’s 95 counties with the funding. The sensors protect election software and machines from hackers. Currently, Tennessee only owns one Albert sensor. Cooper notes that elections are county-run, so one sensor is not effective in preventing election fraud statewide. He references Florida’s adaptation of the sensors three years ago. In 2018, Florida’s Department of State used $1.9 million in federal funding to purchase sensors for each of its 67 counties. Green said the spending was a “poor financial decision.”

$697 million for water infrastructure

Unlike TDOT or Tennessee’s five commercial airports, Metro Water Services does not typically receive annual funding to improve water infrastructure, according to Metro Water Services director Scott Potter. It is his understanding that TDEC will be conducting a statewide assessment of Tennessee’s water infrastructure to determine the highest and best use of the $697 million. Potter says that nationally the industry’s focus is replacing old underground pipes, especially in the eastern portion of the United States where many pipes are more than 100 years old. In Nashville, 63 percent of its 3,000 miles of water pipes are more than 40 years old and need to be replaced, according to Potter. Metro also has an aging sewer system — 59 percent of sewer pipes are more than 40 years old, he says.

From Cooper’s vantage point, the money set aside for water infrastructure improvements is “extremely necessary” due to health and legal ramifications. By not replacing pipes and addressing sewage issues, the government would be endangering the health of its citizens and would likely be legally and financially liable for damages, according to Cooper. While Green believes that funding should have been allocated to replace lead pipes, he thinks the other spending should have waited until the country was in better financial health.

$300 million for airports

Doug Kruelen, president of both Nashville International Airport and the Tennessee Association of Air Carrier Airports, says the $300 million allocated for airport improvements will boost the budget of Tennessee’s five commercial airports by more than 50 percent.

Those five airports typically receive approximately $25 million in federal funding annually, which is divided relatively equally. This $300 million over the next five years will increase the annual federal funding to $60 million. Kruelen says each airport has an existing budget that assumes and outlines project allocations based on the routine amount they receive from the $25 million in federal funding, so TAACA will assess the needs of the airports to determine the best allocation of the $35 million in annual federal funding that has not been standard. Kruelen says the funding will likely not be used for BNA’s current expansion project, since BNA has already taken out a loan to complete the project.

Green argues that the spending was unnecessary since funding for BNA’s project was already in place.

“Democrats are spending money for the sake of spending money,” Green says.

He also adds that he didn’t think we should be spending more money on airports when fewer people are traveling due to COVID restrictions. (Air travel numbers largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels over the summer, surpassing 2019 levels at some points.)

Cooper cheers the appropriation.

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