State Senator Jack Johnson Outlines Problems and Solutions for Tennessee Transportation Infrastructure

Feb 8, 2023

Live from Music Row, Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson in studio to discuss the problems with Nashville’s transportation infrastructure and practical and proven solutions to fix it.

Leahy: In studio, State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. Jack, I watched the State of the State address from Governor Bill Lee, and I’d give it fairly good reviews, a little mixed. I thought he handled the protesters very well when he called for civility. I thought that was a very good moment for Governor Bill Lee.

Johnson: I did too.

Leahy: And everybody really applauded that response. I did have a couple of questions about this proposed $100 million for pregnancy crisis centers. I kind of think that’s a role for the private sector non-profits, not for the state government. And also toward the end, he threw in $350 million for sports facilities in Memphis. I don’t know where that came from. I have big questions about that. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. But he also had what I thought was a good starting point to explain his transportation plan. And he has this idea of choice lanes, said my friend Butch Eley, the Commissioner of Transportation, apparently Governor Lee and Butch Eley went down to Dallas to see how it works there.

I’ve seen it work in Dallas. I think it’s a very effective way to go, but it’s controversial because some people think it’s toll roads, which I don’t think it really is. Can you explain from your point of view what this transportation infrastructure proposal from the governor is?

Johnson: Sure. Happy to. And by the way, I joined the governor and Commissioner Eley, along with some other members in flying down to Dallas.

Leahy: Oh, you went with them?

Johnson: I did.

Leahy: I didn’t know that.

Johnson: I think they had gone several times, but we joined them on one trip, and we met with the TexDot That’s what they call their Department of Transportation in Texas because it’s not a perfect analogy, but if you look at the Dallas Fort Worth metropolitan area, the metroplexes, as they call it, you know, there are some similarities to where they are now or where they were 20 years ago and where Nashville is now. And when you look at the growth trends and growth patterns, they started dealing with this about 20 years ago.

Leahy: A story on that. Population density-wise, Dallas and Nashville are more comparable than, say, Nashville and New York City, for instance.

Johnson: 100 percent.

Leahy: They do mass transit in New York City. It makes sense with high population density. But I’ll tell you, I lived in Dallas in 1984 when a Harvard professor and friend of mine John Cain went down to advise the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Group. I was a liberal then, Jack, I’m sorry to say, and I thought mass transit was the way to go.

And he explained to me, and I thought, this makes some sense. You can’t do it in diverse areas like this, and you need choice lanes and toll lanes. And frankly, I go to Dallas like, once or twice a year. I think it’s working great down there, but your thoughts on this?

Johnson: First of all, people need to understand the problem, and I think the governor did do a good job with that. And before we talk about a solution, it’s important to define the problem. And the problem is this. When you add up every road project that is warranted in the state of Tennessee right now, everything from widening interstates to widening a little two-lane road in a rural part of the state, adding a turn lane, these are all important projects to these communities.

You add all of those up, it comes to about $26 billion in today’s dollars. And when you’re building these projects, sometimes it takes years to get them done. And so you have to factor in inflation. Our budget for new projects in Tennessee right now is about $500 million a year. So $500 million a year, $26 billion price tag.

So you can start to see the magnitude of that. The governor made very clear earlier that we’re not going to do a couple of things. We’re not going to raise taxes. We’re not going to raise a gas tax. We’re not going to take on any additional debt. We don’t owe any money on our roads right now.

Leahy: And let me just interject. Those are two great things. Don’t raise a gas tax, which, of course, was the big issue that got us started here six years ago at The Tennessee Star. And don’t raise the gas tax and no debt. These are really fiscally smart things to do.

Johnson: When you look at Texas again, they have tens of billions of dollars in bonds that they’ve issued over many years. A big part of their budget goes to pay debt service on roads that were built 10-15 years ago. We don’t have that problem, thankfully, and we don’t want to create that problem here. So what do you do?

Some of the most expensive projects that make up that $26 billion price tag are massive, major improvements to high congestion, and high-capacity interstate facilities. I always use Murfreesboro to Nashville. I 24. Everybody in Middle Tennessee knows what a nightmare that is.

Leahy: That is high traffic. High traffic jammed up every day, every morning.

Johnson: And so to add a lane or to add a couple of lanes would be tremendously expensive. And that’s part of that $26 billion price tag. And so what Texas, Ron DeSantis, and Brian  Kemp have done in Georgia, and there are other states as well, and previous governors in those states is they’ve formed a public-private partnership where you bring in an outside private sector entity. They will come in and build that facility and add that capacity.

Leahy: On their own nickel.

Johnson: On their own nickel, using their money, and they’ll go raise the money through investors, and then we own it. We don’t sell our roads to any other entity. We still own the facility. But in exchange for them paying for the construction of that added capacity, we then give them a long-term lease, like a 50-year plus lease, and then they can monetize that.

And so they can charge people to use that additional capacity, that additional lane, and get a return on their investment. I want to make one thing very clear, Michael. If there is a piece of asphalt on the ground right now in Tennessee, you will never be charged to use it more than what you pay.

Now, in terms of a gas tax, this is only for newly added capacity. Using my example, Murfreesboro to Nashville, you add a lane towards Nashville, you add a lane coming back, or in some cases, it might be just one lane that in the morning goes one way, in the evening it comes the other way. That’s added capacity, that will be a choice lane. So if traffic is bad, a driver can make the decision, and I’m willing to pay $5. I’m willing to pay whatever in order to get on that lane.

Leahy: Let me tell you what I would do. So I’m driving along and let’s say they’ve added this extra lane you got to pay for. And I got an appointment I want to make. I’m just going to tell you, I’m zooming and I’m paying.

Johnson: It’s worth your time. Exactly. For many people. And here’s the thing. For those who don’t want to pay, whatever the charge is, the people who are making that decision are getting off of the existing lanes, creating more space for them. So it’s a win-win.

Leahy: In theory, it makes a lot of sense to me. But I think the devil will be in the details.

Johnson: 100 percent.

Leahy: You could see this being poorly implemented, people’s screaming and yelling about it.

Johnson: Absolutely. There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of conversations.

Leahy: But in Dallas, I could tell you they’ve done a very good job with this in Dallas.

Johnson: Yes. People love them.

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Nashville Traffic” by Cheryl A. Austin CC3.0


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