NASHVILLE — Tennessee transportation officials on Monday, Dec. 18, recommended that new, optional toll lanes be added to some highways around Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.
At a news conference, the Tennessee Department of Transportation said the sections would include Interstate 24 between downtown Nashville and Murfreesboro; Interstate 65 between downtown Nashville and Spring Hill; Interstate 24 in Chattanooga around Moccasin Bend; and Interstate 40 west of downtown Knoxville near where it splits with Interstate 75.
The department is recommending to lawmakers and a new state transportation board that the first project be the Nashville-to-Murfreesboro corridor.
It will be years before anything can be built. Officials will first need to complete further studies, as well as a bidding process to select which private entity would win contracts. The state can contract with private entities to develop, build, finance, maintain or operate the lanes. Tennessee expects to close on its first deal for a choice lane project sometime in 2026.
In a state that currently has no tolls on roads, the goal in Tennessee is to lure drivers who are willing to pay a fee — which usually increases as traffic does — to avoid congestion. Similar express lanes can be found across the South in Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, as well as places such as California, Colorado, Washington and Minnesota.
Tennessee’s details emerged after lawmakers passed Gov. Bill Lee’s massive roadway funding law earlier this year, which allows the new toll roads. At Monday’s news conference, state transportation officials also discussed plans to replace the Interstate 55 bridge that connects Memphis and Arkansas over the Mississippi River. The need to replace the 75-year-old bridge became glaring when a crack was discovered on the adjacent Interstate 40 bridge, temporarily shutting it down to traffic in 2021 and forcing a slew of cars and semi-trucks onto Interstate 55.
The Interstate 55 project is expected to cost some $787 million. Tennessee and Arkansas have applied for a federal grant to cover half of it, and the two states would split remaining costs.
In addition to offering toll lanes as an option, the Republican governor’s road funding bill sets aside $3 billion for projects to be split equally among four regions. It also includes $300 million in transportation grants for local governments.
The law also raises electric vehicle fees and introduces a new one on hybrids, which the governor’s team has said will better reflect what those drivers would be paying in federal and state gas taxes. Like other states, Tennessee pays for its roads through gas taxes, a revenue stream that looks less reliable as more people switch to fuel-efficient and electric cars.
The new funding law avoids a traditional tax increase. Critics say the toll lanes will mostly benefit drivers who can afford paying for a quicker ride.
The department on Monday announced a 10-year plan totaling $15 billion, which also accounts for the state’s regular road funding sources. Fifty-five percent of the $15 billion goes toward construction projects, while 45% pays for road work, bridge repairs and other needs.
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