Tennessee River toll bridge is dead in the water

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | Thursday, July 28, 2016

After crunching the numbers, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has decided not to move forward with a toll bridge project. The Tennessee River Bridge project near the cities of Soddy-Daisy and Harrison in Hamilton County is officially dead in the water.

A toll survey of locals and truckers, as well as population data, rendered the project economically unfeasible. Last year, a survey was conducted to get a pulse on whether or not people are willing to pay for the bridge crossing, according to TDOT documents. Although the survey revealed people are willing to pay, it also discovered that they were not willing to pay a high enough price for the bridge to pay for itself.

In the 2015 survey, respondents were willing to pay only half of what they claimed they were willing to pay according to the 2011 survey.

The 2015 survey also found that residents and truckers considered building a new bridge to reduce congestion on other highways to be “very important.” More specifically, respondents thought a bridge over the Tennessee River is a good idea.

Despite agreement with the need for a bridge, survey respondents suggested they would use the bridge infrequently. Nearly half said they would use it only monthly or a few times a year. Only 5 percent would use the bridge daily and 17 percent would take advantage of the connection weekly. Thirty percent would seldom use the bridge if at all.

Earlier estimates predicted large population growth, allowing more revenue for a toll bridge. However, more recent data suggests that annual population growth will decrease rather than increase.

On July 20, TDOT presented the newly discovered information to the Tennessee River Bridge Committee. TDOT’s recommendation: Kill the project.

Efforts to build the connecting bridge began with the Tennessee Tollway Act of 2007, which allowed TDOT to look into tolling as a financial source for transportation projects. TDOT’s task was to recommend one highway and one bridge project for a pilot toll. The Tennessee River Bridge project was one of eight candidates.

Part of the Tollway Act required projects to have a viable, non-tolled alternative, according to TDOT Spokesperson Jennifer Flynn. Studies showed that a toll was the only way to go for the Tennessee River Bridge.

Calculating the costs based on how much residents and truckers are willing to pay, TDOT would be on the hook for $80 million, money they do not have. As Flynn explained, Tennessee is a pay-as-you-go state, meaning the state pays for everything. No bonds are used, and the gas tax has not increased since 1989.

“We have a $6 billion backlog of projects in various stages of development, so the toll bridge was not high on that list,” Flynn told Land Line.

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