Options for improving Tennessee roads include ‘choice lanes’

Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 10:31 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The head of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) says his agency needs $34 billion to improve highways and interstates to handle the state’s growing population.

And to raise that much money, the commissioner suggested creating toll roads.

TDOT Commissioner Butch Eley said Governor Bill Lee doesn’t want to raise the gas tax or take on any new debt, so the state wants to explore “choice lanes” — express lanes you pay to use, and at least one Shelby County road is being considered.

“When it comes to transportation in Tennessee,” said Commissioner Eley, “we’re at a very critical juncture.”

On Wednesday, Eley said $8 billion of the $34 billion would come from the federal government’s infrastructure bill, leaving $26 billion for projects that need funding.

But, the state’s gas tax only generates $1.2 billion a year, and only about half of that is used for road repairs and maintenance.

”Then we’ve got a little bit of a math problem,” said Eley, “being able to continue to make the investments we need to get ahead of the curve.”

Commissioner Eley suggested creating toll roads in Tennessee, called “managed lanes” or “choice lanes.” Drivers would have the choice to pay a fee to use a designated express lane on a particular section of highway or interstate.

“The governor does not believe that toll roads from point A to point B, where the entire road is tolled, is a good solution,” Eley said.

A TDOT Congestion Study for Memphis shows one possible solution to easing traffic problems on Interstate 40 could be to create reversible high-occupancy toll lanes on I-40 from the I-240-fly over to just east of Stage Road.

The estimated price tag? $118 million.

“We’ve got a big number,” said Eley, “that I think probably everybody recognizes we need to be able to do in order to keep up with the level of service here in Tennessee that we need and expect to have.”

Tennessee is one of only six states that doesn’t have any debt related to road construction. Another idea to generate revenue is to tax electric cars, but there just aren’t enough of them on the road yet to raise serious funding for roads.

Eley said the state legislature would have to give them the green light to pursue exploring toll roads as a way to fund new roads.

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