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Citing Lack of Funds, Tennessee Calls Off $1.5 Billion Highway Project

1:33 PM EST on January 15, 2013

Something tells me we're going to be seeing a lot more of this in the not-so-distant future.

A rendering of I-69 through Tennessee. State officials have since halted construction due to lack of funds. Image: ##http://www.tdot.state.tn.us/i69/segment7/location4_3.htm## Tennessee DOT##

Last week Tennessee DOT commissioner John Schroer took to the pages of the Memphis Commercial Appeal to explain his decision to halt construction of his state's portion of I-69. The reason, he explained, is that the state can't afford the 65-mile, $1.5 billion highway project, between Memphis and Dyersburg.

"The $1.5 billion cost estimate represents more than 100 percent of Tennessee's annual federal construction funding," Schroer said. "To spend that on one project — regardless of its location — would not only be a disservice to all Tennesseans, but it would also be downright irresponsible and potentially dangerous. It would leave no money to repair and replace old bridges or implement safety improvements designed to save lives."

In particular Schroer mentioned the unavailability of federal earmarks as a factor in the decision.

TDOT undertook an examination of its project pipeline last year with Smart Growth America and discovered that it had nine times more projects in its project list than available funding would cover. Determined to change the way it did business, Tennessee has been turning away from bypasses and road widening to concentrate more on integrating land use and transportation. The state wants to build places people want to go to and not just through at high speeds.

I-69 -- also known as the NAFTA Superhighway -- had received special designation from FHWA in 2007 as a "corridor of the future," a distinction that was supposed to come with streamlined approval and federal funding. The mega highway was to connect Michigan and Canada to Texas and Mexico. The road has been touted as an economic development boon for the states it bisected.

Tennessee had spent close to two decades on planning, land acquisition and design work for I-69. The state had already spent $200 million, $150 million of which came from the federal government.

But Schroer expressed doubt other states would be able to complete their portions, given the current funding environment.

"Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana and Texas are all facing tremendously expensive I-69 projects, including construction of bridges over the Mississippi and Ohio rivers," he wrote.

Schroer said he would be happy to take up I-69 again "when long-term funding is identified."

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