Compiled each year through hundreds of surveys of state and local officials administered by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, TACIR, the detailed report identifies at least $42.3 billion in public infrastructure improvements needed between 2013 and 2018. That’s a $4.1 billion increase, or 10.7 percent, over last year, mostly because bridges with remedial needs are now treated as immediate needs, the report’s authors note.
Statewide, transportation and utilities was the category needing the most fiscal attention, followed in order by education; health, safety and welfare; and recreation and culture, all of which were above the $1 billion mark.
In Washington County, which includes the government divisions of Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County, transportation and post-secondary education topped the list, but those categories are mostly funded by the state.
Only $46.9 million of the estimated $547 million in transportation costs are expected to come from local sources, and none of the $238.8 million needed for post secondary-education (colleges) will be sourced locally.
The largest expense for local governments was identified as water and wastewater, where 60 projects costing $207.9 million were identified as needed improvements.
“The big number there for the county is getting water to the unserved areas,” Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said. “That’s roughly $100 million just to extend water to those areas.”
On Johnson City’s side, City Manager Pete Peterson said the municipality is facing several large water and sewer projects of its own, like replacing the water tank on the hill above city hall, replacing pipes from Broadway Street to the wastewater treatment plant and converting the system for treating water from one that uses gaseous chlorine to one that uses liquid chlorine.
The next-most expensive categories, rounding out the Top 5, were building new public schools and renovating existing schools, at $84.7 million and $54.8 million in local funds needed, respectively.
Much of those expenses are likely related to Washington County’s proposal to replace or renovate aging elementary and middle schools in Boones Creek and Jonesborough, but Peterson said city schools also face expensive upgrades and maintenance projects.
The annual TACIR study was mandated by state law in 1995, and provides insight for both legislators, who approve the state’s budget, and local officials, who use the document as a guide for capital spending.
“I think it’s a critical piece of information for not only the city and the county, but the state of Tennessee,” Peterson said. “It’s the state’s method of keeping up with infrastructure needs across the state, but it gives everybody the ability to see how well we’re keeping up with maintenance and growth.”
This year, the outline transportation project in the report may have extra weight.
In January, the state Comptroller’s office issued a report detailing challenges face by the fixed gasoline tax, as more fuel efficient vehicles are introduced. According to the report, $8.5 billion in state transportation projects have been backlogged as funding stagnates.
Two months ago, the Transportation Coalition of Tennessee formed, advocating reform to transportation fees in the state that the group said will restore funds to much-needed road projects. Shortly after, Gov. Bill Haslam began pushing an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, though signs point to the measure’s failure in the General Assembly next year.
In TACIR’s recent report, transportation costs increased the most, because of the newly counted bridge needs, but were 61 percent of the costs for all state transportation improvements.
“We’re all in about the same situation, we have specific needs, but I don’t think you can look at Washington County, Johnson City and Jonesborough and say we have not been doing our part investing in infrastructure,” Eldridge said. “Investing in infrastructure and facilities is a constant, recurring cost. We’ve got to accept that and plan accordingly.”