BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
JOHNSON CITY -- Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer is fond of change and ready to implement the "Top to Bottom Review" that Governor Bill Haslam called for when he took office.
As a part of that review, Schroer intends to implement a new "Expedited Project Delivery" process designed to address some of the state's highway-related problem situations in faster ways and at a lower cost.
Schroer has served as TDOT's commissioner since his appointment in January 2011.
In an unscheduled presentation on Thursday, he detailed some of the recent and upcoming changes at the Department of Transportation during a joint meeting of the First Tennessee Rural Planning Organization (RPO) Technical Committee and its Executive Board.
RPO Members held the joint meeting at the Johnson City Transit Office, where they expected to hear from Steve Allen, TDOT Project Planning Director, concerning changes to the project development process.
When Commissioner Schroer appeared at the meeting as an unexpected guest, however, RPO members invited him to take the floor.
He did so with enthusiasm, speaking for an hour about funding and proactive change.
The focus of remarks by both Schroer and Allen was the development of the Expedited Project Delivery process.
Schroer praised it as a means of increasing efficiency and providing more highway-related projects more quickly.
During his presentation, Allen defined Expedited Project Delivery as a process "to identify and recommend improvement options that are feasible, cost-effective, and provide improved safety and mobility."
The process begins with prioritization of road-related project requests by local governments.
Schroer said he was surprised to take office and find that TDOT had no such prioritization of projects.
"It was work by fire," he said, explaining that work would get done on a project when someone called to complain. This approach, he said, resulted in a chaotic shuffle, and inefficient progress.
Now, he has directed employees to develop a three-year prioritization plan using information from rural and municipal planning organizations, as well as assistance from Decision Lens, a company providing evaluation software for prioritizations, and a consulting firm, RP Industries.
Key factors in determining priorities will be considered in the following order:
* safety concerns,
* operational issues/congestion,
* economic development,
* multimodal issues (such as areas where there is more than one mode of transportation, i.e., railroads and public transportation vehicles).
The priorities will be "holistic" as well, Allen said, so that all the work is not always done in the four major cities.
"This is the best thing I think we've ever thought about doing," he said.
Allen also later noted that the department will be, as a part of this process, updating the 25-Year Multimodal Transportation Plan of 2005.
Beyond prioritization, the state will now look at project requests in a different way, Schroer said.
Whereas in the past multiple options -- and cheaper options -- may not have always been taken into consideration on projects, he said the "Expedited Project Delivery" plan will look for ways that 60-plus percent efficiency could be achieved in a less expensive, faster manner.
For example, he described a 13-year, $4-to-6 million study of a proposed bypass that resulted in consultants' detailing where the bypass could go for a total cost of $45 million.
As almost a side note, Schroer said, the consultant also stated that a synchronization of the traffic lights and realignment of intersections could be 80 percent as efficient as a new bypass and would only cost $1.6 million.
After hearing this, Schroer said he told employees that no TDOT project should proceed any farther until it has undergone such a review to determine if there is a less expensive alternative that could offer a similarly high percentage of efficiency.
Allen emphasized that this review of less expensive alternatives for a large TDOT project will not be the final phase of study on the project, nor will it be a highly detailed phase.
He added that adoption in the short term of some less extensive, less expensive alternative approach to a major project may also be only a 5-to-10-year solution to the situation before TDOT carries out the full project -- and, for example, builds a bypass.
Schroer said that these changes are largely the result of what he said could be an impending funding crisis that he hopes to avoid by proactive change.
He noted cautionary signs such as the fact that the U.S. Congress has only set a two-year infrastructure budget -- and for an amount that is a fraction the size of China's five-year infrastructure budget.
Currently, the United States is ranked 25th in the world for infrastructure. "That's disgusting to me," Schroer said.
If the federal highway budget were to take a 2 percent cut, the reduction would nearly zero out Tennessee's $374 million discretionary roadway funding, Commissioner Schroer said.
This is the money out of which TDOT meets local government roadway improvement requests, he explained.
The majority of TDOT's $1.8 billion budget is tied up in specialty programs and maintenance, the commissioner said.
'FUNDING WILL BE AN ISSUE'
While Tennessee ranks very high for some of the best roads in the nation and has no road debt, motorists are only paying an average $250 per year in fuel tax, he said.
"Funding is going to be an issue," Schroer stated.
"There are vehicles right now that don't pay anything to drive on our roads. We subsidize them -- those of us paying for gasoline."
Adding to this, he said that federal regulations will require manufacturers to significantly increase vehicles' average miles per gallon in the next few years.
"We're going to have to look at that, and that's scary for us," he said. "We're trying to be proactive rather than reactive."
Officials concluded by encouraging members of the committee and board to provide input and keep an open mind when it comes to road-related projects in their community.