Traffic committee narrowing priority list

By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor

PUTNAM COUNTY – Following last week’s meeting, members of the Putnam County Transportation Study Committee are now working to narrow its list of more than 120 proposed traffic improvements down to roughly 10 before presenting the list to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for funding consideration.

But which proposed road projects will make the committee’s short list? Committee members, made up of officials representing the cities of Algood, Baxter, Cookeville, and Monterey as well as Putnam County, have each submitted their laundry list of needed roadway projects; ranging from improvements to existing roads to new construction.

“As things change, what we think will be top priority in 20 years may not even be a priority and may not even be a possibility,” said Putnam County Executive Randy Porter.

“The goal was never to present this to TDOT,” Porter said of the lengthy list. “This is our working document that we’ll work through until we get to those top five or 10 that we’re going to present to them. But, we need a local plan that we are all agreeing on and we’re moving forward with that’s going to be separate from what we’re going to be providing TDOT, in my opinion.”

Providing a list of roadway projects deemed necessary, complete with documentation and data supporting the need, would help boost the chances of entities securing funding for those projects, said Cookeville’s planning director James Mills.

Recently the state, through TDOT and the IMPROVE Act, announced plans to contribute more than $297 million in funding for a variety of road and bridge construction projects across the state.

READ MORE: Tennessee roadways get $297 million boost

A pair of Putnam County projects were identified by that program – and previously by the traffic committee – the widening of N. Willow Ave., from W. Broad St. to W. 12th St. and improving rural access along S. Jefferson Ave., from I-40 to SR-111. Both projects are expected to be fully funded by IMPROVE Act dollars and are expected to cost approximately $35.8 million and $20.1 million, respectively.

Both of the identified projects have reportedly been in talks for nearly 20 years and no timeline has been given for their completion.

“Willow Avenue, from Broad (Street) to 12th (Street) has been literally talked about for 20 years,” said Cookeville Mayor Ricky Shelton. “We sent letters when I was on the (city) council in 2002-2003 and now finally, they said it’s been earmarked with $39 million within 10 years. So that’s going to be at least 25 years before it’s going to be done from when it was first talked about.

“What’s frustrating to me is we see a lot of TDOT projects happening exponentially in some adjoining counties where we have one or two. That is a lack of us being, I think, assertive.” – Cookeville Mayor Ricky Shelton

Shelton added that Senator Paul Bailey, whose District 15 seat includes Putnam County, is the Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and should be involved in the committee’s meetings.

“He needs to be at this meeting and we need to tell him we expect Putnam County to be moved up on this list,” Shelton said. “We’ve got things in Putnam County that we need desperately.”

The S. Jefferson Avenue project was reportedly approved almost 20 years ago as well. That project is currently listed as being in the right-of-way phase, per the TDOT website.

““And that still doesn’t mean it’s going to be built any time soon,” said Mills.

Meanwhile, the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce is looking into hiring a staff member to serve as a liasion of sorts to help lobby for needed roadway projects in and around the county.

“It’s in the planning stages but we’re raising the money, we’re raising it privately,” said George Halford, President and CEO of the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber.

“Unless somebody’s pushing (projects) every day, at TDOT – I’m preaching to the choir ­– all of a sudden it sits on somebody’s desk,” he added.

Recommending a “power in numbers” approach to advocate for the current list of projects, Shelton suggested the leaders of each entity select its one or two most important projects and report back to the committee. From there, those projects would be reviewed and agreed upon for inclusion on the list to be presented to TDOT for funding consideration.

The committee will review those projects at the next meeting scheduled for Feb. 2.

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