In spite of Schroer's recent column in the Commercial Appeal supporting the decision to halt work on I-69 through West Tennessee, the TDOT leader's presentation to residents and leaders attending the meeting at the Lannom Center at noon on Friday was not a death sentence for the superhighway. Instead, the commissioner pledged to continue progress on I-69 throughout his tenure and the tenure of Gov. Bill Haslam.
The event drew leaders representing several surrounding counties, many who are very concerned about projects within the West Tennessee region already under way due to the promise of the multi-state highway connecting Canada to Mexico.
State Rep. Bill Sanderson said he was pleased Schroer's visit coincided with U.S. Congressman Stephen Fincher's break from Washington. Sanderson coordinated the visit and introduced both leaders.
"I had several people asking me about transportation issues and I asked the commissioner to come to speak to our district," said Sanderson. "I am thrilled we have this opportunity."
Sanderson introduced Fincher first.
"I've had several town hall meetings lately concerning the budget," said Fincher. "They have been depressing, but what we get to talk about today is upbeat."
Fincher gave an overview of the positive impact I-69 will bring to the region once completed, but said he is afraid he will not see the highway completed in his lifetime.
"The bottom line is this, folks. You are either moving forward or backward," said Fincher, who said he believes Tennessee's leaders are moving the state forward. "Our leadership - in Sanderson, in the commissioner, in Gov. Haslam - is moving us forward. We don't have road debt in our state. We have responsible people making responsible decisions."
Fincher said he is pleased that the federal government has taken earmarks away from transportation funds granted to states.
"We stopped earmarking," said Fincher. "We stopped that because (you had to conduct) catfish studies and build roads for turtles. This is your money. What we are trying to do is let you spend it."
Schroer said the decision to remove earmarks from federal transportation funds means the I-69 corridor must now compete with every transportation project across the state.
"I am proud of what we do in Tennessee. We've got good roads in Tennessee," said Schroer. "You live close to other states, you know the minute you cross the state line. We are the third best in the nation on our roads, second to Florida and Georgia and those states have road debt and toll roads. And we are last in something I am proud as hell about -- we spend less money per capita on our roads. That means we have the most efficient department for roads in the nation. My pledge is to continue that."
Schroer said no funds come out of the state's general fund to maintain its roads or transportation infrastructure, so any money saved within the TDOT budget goes directly to the next transportation project.
"When we build roads in segments, we pay as we go," said Schroer. "We have no road debt. (To remain that way) we have to be very careful. We have to manage our cash."
Schroer shared a list of TDOT funds and the cost of required special programming, as well as recurring costs for the state's resurfacing and better bridge programs.
"We have 19,000 bridges we have to look over and make sure they are safe," said Schroer. "We have 1,500 projects in development at TDOT with an estimated cost of $10 billion. We have to solve that $10 billion with $375 million in discretionary funding. Every project has to compete."
Schroer said TDOT looks at three main issues when choosing projects.
"The thing we look at more than anything is safety concerns," said Schroer. "Congestion is the second issue. That is a huge economic driver. With so many on-time deliveries, truck drivers need to know -- sometimes within minutes -- how long it will take to get where they are going. And that needs to be consistent. The third issue is economic development."
Schroer said I-69 projects from both the north and south have begun, with three segments in Union City partially complete. With right-of-way purchases and plans drawn, Schroer said the cost to complete the road to Troy will still take $120 million, half the funds available in the state transportation budget.
"We are committed to getting this section done," said Schroer, who estimates it will take four years to complete the second and third segments of the highway through Union City and a little longer to complete the paving. "We will be following that into Troy."
Schroer expects that leg of the project to take $60 million. Work on that portion, too, will be divided.
"(We will divide that into) two segments," said Schroer. "That will probably take somewhere around a 10-year program."
When that section is complete, Schroer said Tennessee will have the north and south sides of I-69 complete.
"(We will just be) waiting on the middle section," said Schroer, who said that middle section - SIU 8 - consists of 65 miles between Millington and Dyersburg. "(That cost is estimated at) $1.2 billion to 1.5 billion in today's dollars."
With no funds designated by the federal government directly to completing I-69 and Schroer reporting the funding gap between federal funds and state transportation funds growing larger and larger, local leaders may have reason to be worried about the future of the highway through the West Tennessee region.
"Congress stopped with a two-year highway bill because they can't find any more money to fund transportation," said Schroer, who said the United States has fallen from ranking second in the world in infrastructure in 2002 to being ranked 25th in the world in infrastructure today.
"I hope that before the congressman leaves office, I-69 will be completed," said Schroer. "You will continue to see progress on I-69 while I am in office and while the governor is in office."
After the meeting, Sanderson said he is pleased with the turnout at the event by leaders throughout the West Tennessee region.
"I think this was an amazing opportunity to hear the commissioner speak," said Sanderson. "And to see the passion (of the local leaders) and how important this is (to our district). I think it speaks volumes to have this many people turn out. It was a great opportunity."
State Sen. Lowe Finney was unable to attend the event due to several conflicts in his schedule. He did offer a quote on I-69 at an event in Dyersburg on Thursday evening.
"The state has already spent $200 million in planning money and this is exactly the kind of project that jumpstarts communities in rural counties of the state," said Finney. "I hope we get it. We need it."