Panel discussion focuses on infrastructure and development in the area

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

As part of its “Path to Prosperity” strategy, the Knoxville Chamber has put together five focus areas for growth in the region. “Infrastructure Redefined” was the latest white paper from the Chamber’s strategy to be released, looking at broadband, transportation issues, and more throughout the Knoxville area.

The Chamber held a virtual panel earlier this week to celebrate the release of the white paper. Nancy Nabors, Director of Regional Enhancement at the Chamber, moderated the event. Rather than having each panelist answer every question, Nabors asked individual panelists questions more specific to their expertise, starting with Tennessee State Senator Becky Massey, who is the Chairman of the Senate Transportation and Safety Committee.

Massey started by talking about potential legislative solutions to the loss of revenue from diesel and fuel taxes due to the rise in popularity of electric vehicles. Some states, including Tennessee, have an additional fee to register electric vehicles. Many other states are piloting different policies that use GPS to track mileage and the road usage of electric vehicle drivers.

“What’s new though, is that Tennessee is going to be the national leader on the production of electric vehicles,” she said. “I would like Tennessee as we move forward to conduct a pilot of our own to see how it works for us.”

Massey also touched on funding for the federal infrastructure bill and how community leaders can prioritize the East Tennessee region. The bill also has funding slated for public transportation, water infrastructure, airports, and broadband.

The Tennessee General Assembly will be focusing on the Real ID requirement, airport improvement funding, the billboard law, and rules around public scooter use in the next year, she added.

Nabors then moved to speaking with Steve Borden, Director/Assistant Chief Engineer for Region 1 of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). She asked about congestion, saying four of the five highest traffic count stations in Tennessee are in Knoxville.

Borden talked about specific areas in Knoxville that are seeing congestion and a growing number of cars traveling the roadways. The interstate interchange near Hollywood Drive sees 215,000 vehicles per day, for example. This number continues to grow, he said. Freight traffic along the corridors is also increasing.

TDOT has some projects under development for congestion improvements. One way to improve congestion is to modernize interchanges to improve the flow of traffic, Borden said. The department is also doing studies on major interstates in the region.

“When you look at infrastructure as a whole, reliable transportation is a big part of the investment you’re seeing in our state,” he said.

Crystal Ivey from the Broadband/Fiber Team at the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) spoke next. Ivey also highlighted her former experience as Broadband Director with the State of Tennessee.

The city recently approved a plan from KUB to offer broadband to all its electric customers. Ivey said fiber will improve the electric system’s performance. It will also help unserved and underserved communities have better access.

“We’re very excited that this fiber project will support the community in fully participating in the digital economy,” Ivey said.

A large amount of state and federal funding has been dedicated to broadband access recently as well. Demand for faster broadband has been increasing, with the pandemic exacerbating access issues for some communities, Ivey said. Affordability is also important.

Nabors then passed the moderating hat over to Debbie Billings, Owner of Heritage Realty/JD Properties and Vice Chair of the Chamber’s Infrastructure Council. Billings spoke with the final panelist, Hancen Sale, Government Affairs and Policy Director with the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors. The two talked more specifically about the growing prices of current housing and new developments in the region.

Sale pointed out that Knoxville’s population grew at three times the national rate from 2019 to 2020. This influx of people has created a surge in demand and the resulting increase in home prices. In 2021, Sale said housing prices increased by 20 percent.

“This is a really complex problem. You can’t just buy a piece of land and build a house on it the next day,” Sale said.

Sale talked about some policy solutions that could encourage new home construction. Building utilities in new developments can also be cost-prohibitive, he said. Looking at subsidies or other cost reduction methods is another way to help the problem. While affordable housing is a problem in the area, Sale said the need is “not exclusive” to that income group.

The link to the panel video, as well as audience questions, will be in the Chamber’s Loop email on Monday.

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