Legislative committee approves bridge repairs

Tenn. Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville)
Sen. Mark Norris

Legislation prioritizing the repair of structurally-deficient bridges in Tennessee was unanimously approved by the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, April 12. Senate Bill 1220, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), authorizes the Department of Transportation (TDOT) to pay up to 100 percent of the cost to repair or replace bridges on local roadways through a new “High Priority” category in the state-aid highway program. The legislation would give TDOT the ability to carry out these projects without requiring a local match.

The vote came after testimony from Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Chief Engineer Paul Degges that 200 of the state’s 526 structurally deficient bridges on local roads have been weight-posted, a status which prevents certain school buses, pumper-style fire trucks and other heavy vehicles from crossing due to safety risks. Degges said that unless there is a comprehensive fix, within 10 to 12 years all 526 bridges that are in need of repair or replacement will likely be added to that list.

“In three locations in the state, buildings have burned because a pumper truck could not get to them in a timely fashion,” Degges said.

Norris reiterated reports from school officials in Tennessee that school buses have crossed deficient bridges one axle at a time to reduce safety risk. “Woe be to us if both axles are ever on,” said Norris. “We are going to make keeping Tennessee safe a higher priority. We are going to repair and replace these bridges. We are not some third world nation. We want to rebuild Tennessee and keep her safe.”

TDOT estimates 47 percent of bridges on local roads are over 50 years old. With an average lifespan of 50 to 75 years, TDOT officials estimate 30 bridges in Tennessee will become structurally deficient each year because of age and wear and tear, not to mention those classified as functionally obsolete due to high traffic volume. In addition, 162 bridges on the state highway network are in need of repair or replacement due to the same reasons.

The legislation also gives TDOT the authority to maintain local roadways within the borders of state parks. There has been a longstanding issue related to who is responsible for maintaining these roads since they are local roads within state-operated parks. There are approximately 65 miles of roads within the state parks that are currently the responsibility of local governments.

The proposal incorporates funding made available under Senate Bill 1221, or the Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act, which was also approved by the committee last week. The purpose of the IMPROVE Act, which is also called the 2017 Tax Cut Act, is to rebuild a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayer’s return on that investment.

“It’s a tremendous return on the taxpayers’ investment,” said Norris. “Somebody said it’s not easy, and that’s right – it’s hard. We did the hard work of looking at where we could return money to the taxpayers and reallocate revenues to maximize Tennesseans return on their investment and to make sure that we reinvest in Tennessee and her future.”

MARK NORRIS is a state senator (R-Collierville) for Tennessee and Senate Majority Leader. He chairs the Senate Rules Committee and serves as second vice-chair for the Senate Calendar Committee. He is also a member of the Senate Ethics Committee; Finance, Ways and Means Committee; State and Local Government Committee; and Joint Pensions and Insurance Committee. He may be reached at (615) 741-1967 or via email to sen.mark.norris@capitol.tn.gov.