Transportation Commissioner Eley: If All Goes Well, We Will See Choice Lane Projects Begin During Gov Lee’s Second Term

Transportation Commissioner Eley: If All Goes Well, We Will See Choice Lane Projects Begin During Gov Lee’s Second Term

Live from Music Row, Tuesday 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 Commissioner of Transportation, Butch Eley in studio to discuss the public-private legislation needed to implement choice lanes in the state.

Leahy: We are delighted to have in our studio a very good friend for many years, I guess this now over 30, Butch Eley, the commissioner of transportation. Butch, you were describing the choice lane concept.

And I guess one of the questions we have is particularly, you know, on I-65, coming in from even from Franklin up to Nashville, it has those lanes. And I’m thinking, well, how do you add another lane there? The right of way becomes a bit of an issue. Tell us how that would work.

Eley: Yes, that’s a great question, Michael. And there’s actually more right of way than most people realized back in the day as the interstate system was formed. There’s more land than what typically is known. And so most of this can be done in those areas with existing right of way. There will be some situations that are tight.

We’ve had a lot of construction, and a lot of growth in the Middle Tennessee area. But it’s important to recognize that this is not just an urban issue. You live in the suburbs of Nashville. The rural areas also are seeing this pressure.

And so what we’re looking at is being able, if we can invest with these public-private partnerships, it allows us to reallocate those dollars that we would otherwise have to spend just in the urban area and be able to expand some of our interstates. We think we’ve got certainly the engineering capability to do that.

Leahy: To illustrate the issue of growth, we moved right around the time I was teaching at Belmont in 1997. We moved from Nashville to the Thompsons Station Spring Hill area. I thought we’d moved to the far side of the moon. (Eley chuckles) 

You may recall, Cool Springs hadn’t been up there. One day we were looking for a place to buy, and we just kept driving and driving and driving and driving. This is too far away! Well, right now it’s right smack dab in the middle of suburbia. And it makes your point about growth and how you’ve got to have a solution for this. To me, logically, this sounds like a pretty good solution.

Now, on our side, a lot of people look at this and you said something that occasionally sort of makes folks on our side shiver. When you say public-private partnership, explain that a little bit and how that’s worked in the past, and how that will benefit taxpayers in Tennessee.

Eley: Yes, well, the biggest benefit to public-private partnership is the private sector. We’re inviting the private sector to come in and invest in our infrastructure. The important thing to note is that our roads are our roads. We own them.

We’ll never sell any of our infrastructure assets in that way. So they would come in for a long-term lease to where they would finance, design, build, operate, and maintain that roadway.

Leahy: But we own it.

Eley: We own it at the end of that agreement, then it’s ours.

Leahy: But they get some of the revenue from the choice lane.

Eley: That’s exactly right. They’re making that upfront investment, and so they’re getting some of the fees from the choice lanes. Now there is a threshold once you get to where the state shares in that, but basically, it’s to pay back that original investment.

Leahy: So the taxpayers of Tennessee don’t put up the cash.

Eley: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. In Texas, what they have seen is that in some situations, the cost of the project was so large it may be a $500 million dollar project, let’s say. So they would have to put some amount of subsidy out, but they would get, let’s say, 80 percent of the project paid for, which allows them to make that investment into other projects. The important thing too is we’re doing this without raising taxes at all and we’re not issuing any debt. And so I think it’s important that people realize that that’s one of the major reasons we are doing this.

Leahy: This bill is before the Tennessee General Assembly as we speak. How’s it going there? What kind of response are they getting? Are you answering the questions? Do we think this is going to pass? And, of course, the big question will the governor sign the bill if it passes? (Laughter)

Eley: Yes. Let me say this, this is his idea and his bill.

Leahy: So you think he’ll sign it?

Eley: Yes, I think he’ll sign it if it comes to his desk. But really the response of the legislature has been great. Both the Speakers have been good to talk to about this. They understand the situation that we’re in. Our House leadership in the Transportation Committee Chairman Howell and then in the Senate Chair Becky Massey.

They really understand this issue, and they’ve been very helpful in designing this idea that they believe, and I believe, certainly will help Tennesseans. And so it’ll be working its way through committee.

Actually, starting this week, we will be in the Senate and in the House talking about this, and answering questions from members. And so there are several steps that it will go through over the coming weeks, but it’ll continue to proceed and I think be dealt with during this legislative session.

Leahy: That’s what it looks like to me. Also, I believe that a bill with some modifications will be passed by both Houses, will be presented to the governor for signature. He’ll probably sign it. And then that means by June or July; this will be law. If all goes well, when does the implementation begin, and when will people start seeing the choice lane options be taken?

Eley: Yes. That’s a great question because it’s important to recognize what this legislation actually does. And that is to give us the authority to do these public-private partnerships. Right now in Tennessee, we’re one of only a handful of states that does not have that capability. And so we’re seeking that authority.

We know from congestion studies that we have already done that there are existing bottlenecks and projects, good potential projects out there, but we’ve got to do our deep dive due diligence to find out which ones are economically feasible and which ones give us the most optimum result.

And so we’ll be doing that over the coming months, and then we’ll be coming back to the legislature this next session and being able to show them which projects we’re looking at. What the governor has also said is we need to do this in every part of the state and then we also need to do rural projects in conjunction with this so that everybody in the state benefits.

Leahy: Would it be fair to say that by the end of Governor Lee’s second term, which will be three or four years from now, we’ll start to see some of these projects come to fruition?

Eley: If I have it my way, I’m here four more years, and we’ll see one of these projects get started.

Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:

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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 “Bill Lee” by Gov. Bill Lee. Background Photo “Tennessee Capitol” by Ron Cogswell. CC BY 2.0.


Clint Brewer Praises Gov. Bill Lee’s Transportation Infrastructure Plans

Clint Brewer Praises Gov. Bill Lee’s Transportation Infrastructure Plans

Live from Music Row Thursday 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 all-star panelist Clint Brewer in studio to comment upon Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State address and his infrastructure plans.

Leahy: We are joined in studio by a very good friend, all-star panelist, recovering journalist, good guy, and also public affairs specialist, Mr. Clint Brewer. Good morning, Clint.

Brewer: Morning, Mike. How are you today, man?

Leahy: I am delighted to have you here and to talk about what’s going on in the state and nationally. Let’s start with the state if that’s okay.

Brewer: Yes, do it.

Leahy: Governor Bill Lee delivered a State of the State address on Monday evening. What was your reaction to it? Good, bad, indifferent, mixed?

Brewer: I was pretty positive on the whole thing. I thought he did a great job. I think he laid out the priorities in a way that Tennesseeans are going to understand and appreciate. I really have to say the emphasis on infrastructure is important. It’s important to people’s quality of life.

It’s important to the state’s economy. Tennessee’s economy has built a lot around our ability to move things from one point to the other. We’ve got some of the best logistics in the country with our interstates, our rail systems, and our airports. And so doubling down on that is good. Also, energy consumption changes.

Tennessee has always been fueled by gas taxes that we pay in cash for our roads and infrastructure. And with the nature of how people consume energy changing for transportation, I think we’ve got to double down on that. So I was really happy to see it, and I think it makes a lot of sense.

Leahy: Well, I’m going to shock you.

Brewer: You’re going to disagree with me?

Leahy: No.

Brewer: You’re going to agree with me.

Leahy: I’m going to say that I think the general direction that he’s going in infrastructure, along with his Commissioner of Transportation Butch Eley, I think it is a good direction, and I think it is a direction that reflects the reality of the population density of Nashville and Middle Tennessee and the rest of Tennessee.

Brewer: Yes, no, I agree with you. It’s a vital service. It’s a service only government provides. I think the Governor and Commissioner Eley, in particular, are being creative. I think there’s some talk of toll roads and other things.

Leahy: Choice lanes!

Brewer: Yes, not on the talking point. Things that are done in other large metropolitan areas, and other states that have seen this kind of growth in the past. It’s all smart stuff, and congratulations to them for thinking ahead rather than trying to play catch up. I think that’s a style of governance we’ve been fortunate to have in this state, and I’m glad to see it continue. I thought it was a really good speech.

Leahy: Tennessee is growing and will continue to grow. I know this part will shock you. I had some quibbles about some of the things that he suggested there, and we’ll get to those in our next segment.

But this transportation infrastructure plan, I think they were very, very smart in the way they put it together, in the sense that Nashville is not New York City, it’s not Boston, it’s not Washington, D.C., and it’s not San Francisco. It doesn’t have that dense population concentration in areas that make mass transit, subways, and the like is relatively cost-effective.

Brewer: It’s also big geographically.

Leahy: It’s big. It’s split out. It’s a lot more like it’s closer geographically to Dallas, Texas.

Brewer: I think that’s fair.

Leahy: And so state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson was in studio with us yesterday and he told us that he went down to Dallas with the governor and with Commissioner Eley to look at what they’ve done there. And, you know, I lived in Dallas in 1984 for about a year, and I must admit I was a liberal at that time and was a big mass transit fan.

But a friend of mine who was a professor at Harvard, John Kane, went down and advised the Dallas area Rapid Transit folks on how to construct a transportation system that worked. And he kind of blew my mind when he said, no, what we need to do is build roads and have choice lanes and toll lanes, which is what they did. And I have to tell you, we go to Dallas now once or twice a year. It’s working great down there.

Brewer: Yes.

Leahy: I was very impressed with how they’ve handled infrastructure in Dallas, Texas. Yeah.

Brewer: How they move people around that city is impressive. And it’s no surprise to see Majority Leader Jack Johnson on the case. We’ve talked in the show many times about how fortunate Tennessee is to have leaders with the kind of experience and brain power and temperament. Jack’s right up there. No surprise at all.

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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 “Bill Lee” by Bill Lee. 














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

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

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