State needs $37.3 billion to upgrade foundation

On September 23, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

Transportation and utilities, education require most attention

Ken Little, Knoxville News Sentinel
September 23, 2010

Tennessee has $37.3 billion worth of public infrastructure needs through 2013, and the numbers keep climbing.

A report released last week by the Tennessee Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations finds that at a minimum, that much money is required to continue development in six general categories, including transportation and utilities, education, and health, safety and welfare.

The report covers a five-year period from 2008 through 2013. Other areas of public infrastructure need include recreation and culture, economic development and general government.

State and local officials provided the information used to arrive at the $37.3 billion figure. Since the 1999 TACIR report was published, public infrastructure needs have increased by $23.6 billion. Infrastructure needs have jumped another $3.1 billion, or 9 percent, since the September 2009 report.

Catherine Corley, TACIR senior research associate, said the list includes “both new public infrastructure and needs for updating and replacing existing infrastructure.”

“Tennessee’s infrastructure needs continue to increase, both in the number of projects reported and in cost of the needs themselves. With the recent recession and a reduction in tax revenues at all levels of government, Tennessee is in a worse position to keep up with the state’s growing public infrastructure needs,” Corley said.

Counties with high population growth “struggle to keep up with infrastructure needs such as new K-12 schools, water supply and wastewater, and the increased wear and tear on the roads and bridges,” she said.

Needs in all six general categories increased from the previous report for only the second time in inventory history, TACIR officials said. The biggest increase is in the transportation and utilities sector, which includes the most extensive infrastructure needs, at $18.9 billion and 51 percent of the total.

The second largest category is education, at $7.7 billion.

Tennessee’s infrastructure needs inventory is the only statewide source of information on the condition of public school buildings.

Statewide, 91 percent of public schools are now in “good or excellent” condition, according to the report.

But the cost to put the remaining 9 percent in “good or better” condition is estimated at $1.6 billion.

Maintaining infrastructure is important in many local school districts, including Knox County Schools. Knox County Schools spokesman Russ Oaks said the district will spend more than $24 million over the next three years for building maintenance and upgrades.

Oaks isn’t sure if district officials provided information to TACIR, but said infrastructure improvements are budgeted yearly.

“It’s absolutely a priority. It’s a line every year within our capital plan,” he said.

Michael Drescher, spokesman for Gov. Phil Bredesen, said many of the ongoing infrastructure improvement projects in Tennessee, in particular road and bridge work, are funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars.

“When the recovery act money came through, we made sure we got a lot of those projects out and under way really quickly,” Drescher said.

Funding availability is addressed in the report. Of $29.2 billion in needs identified on a local level, officials are confident they will receive only $9.1 billion. TACIR asks officials to report only available funding dollars, with no speculation about how projects might be paid for.

Many projects will receive funding from the federal recovery act, but because the legislation authorizes two years of funding for some, the total remains unknown.

There are other funding options, Corley said.

“Not all of the funds needed for public infrastructure will be available,” she said. “Some of these projects will get funded and the funding will come from a variety of sources.”

Those include city, county, state, federal and even private sources, according to Corley.

“There are projects that have been in the inventory for many years,” she said. “The inventory asks locals to identify infrastructure needs regardless of how likely it is they will be funded.”

There are “many state and federal programs that locals can apply for to help meet those needs,” Corley said, including ARRA, community development block grants and federal highway funds.

State infrastructure inventories are only done in Tennessee, said Harry Green, TACIR executive director.

State Sen. Mark Norris, TACIR’s chairman, said knowing what specific infrastructure needs are make it easier to respond quickly for ARRA funding.

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