PHOTO: TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, right, spoke with moderator Dave Crouch during a town hall event at Columbia State Community College in Franklin on Friday, June 22, 2018.//Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
During an early morning town hall Friday, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer got the audience laughing as he shared stories of his experiences with Gov. Bill Haslam and his limited knowledge of the department before his tenure.
Schroer served as mayor of Franklin from 2008 to January of 2011, when he stepped down at Gov. Haslam’s behest to serve as commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
“I didn’t know crap about roads,” he admitted, though he had built a few as a commercial real estate developer, creating centers like Williamson Square in Franklin.
Prior to his term as mayor of Franklin, Schroer served as the chairman of the Franklin Special School District for 11 years.
Schroer is currently serving as the president of AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officers, a nonprofit and nonpartisan association representing highway and transportation departments across the nation.
Schroer said before Haslam tapped him for the position, he asked which position he was interested in. Schroer said he felt more capable of running the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
“He goes, ‘Well, great, but I want you to run TDOT’,” he said Haslam insisted.
Transitioning to the role from having limited power as Franklin’s mayor involved a learning curve.
“I would always say, ‘We do that?’” he explained.
Schroer had to learn the many functions of TDOT, from building roads and bridges to acquiring funding.
“I said, ‘Who makes that decision?’ And they said, ‘Well, you do, commissioner,’” Schroer chuckled.
Public safety in transportation
There are sobering elements to the job, too.
Schroer is notified of every fatality on state roads; there were over 1,000 deaths last year.
“When someone dies on my road, I pay attention to it,” he said. “If you live in a house, and someone ran off the road into your house and hit a tree and died, you’d be devastated,” he said. “You had nothing to do with it, but they died by a tree that you owned.”
“When you know about them, it means something,” Schroer continued. “When I look at those all the time, and I see back stories and I see pictures, nothing else matters.”
Size and numbers
The state’s transportation department, Schroer said, is the 17th largest in the country.
“In terms of volume size, we’re the only one that’s doing it without debt, and we’re able to manage that,” he said, referring to the state’s top ranking with 1.76 percent state debt as a percentage of gross domestic product.
After cutting $500 million in taxes and raising $248 million in revenue, Schroer referred to the Improve Act as, “the largest single tax cut bill in the history of the state of Tennessee.”
Schroer said $400 million in projects were identified for construction in Williamson County over the next 10-12 years, including Mack Hatcher Parkway.
In the state, 962 projects were identified, many of which were bridges; of the 19,500 bridges in the state, Schroer said each must be inspected every two years.
Schroer’s characterization of the act as a tax cut was disputed by one audience member, Norman Bobo, who lives in south Williamson County.
“We didn’t need a tax increase to do it,” Bobo said of the road improvements. “We had $2 billion sitting in our accounts, and we raised taxes when we could have just paid for the transportation projects. Everyone says it was a tax cut, and it was not a tax cut,” he said, pointing out that state spending went up by $1 million.
“Growth in the state of Tennessee funded the increase and the revenue, because we have so many people moving in and buying things, and you have businesses,” Schroer said, relating that three companies signed commitment letters to move to the state the day after Haslam signed the Improve Act, which has brought 5,000 jobs to mostly rural regions.
“You’re paying $4 more a month at the gas station in order to help this state become more attractive to businesses,” he said.
Though he admitted the figures can be interpreted different ways, in the end, “It was right for the state of Tennessee, it has not had any negative impact on the state.”
Managing traffic in the future
“How do we deal with traffic as this area continues to grow?” moderator Dave Crouch asked, referring to the recently failed transit referendum in Nashville.
Schroer blamed the failure on the fact that the transit plan did not address traffic beyond Davidson County.
“It had no bearing on regional traffic, and I think that might have been an issue,’ he said. “It wasn’t going to help anybody, it was going down through the main corridors in Nashville.”
“Those were all state roads, and they had to get our approval on in order to do what they were going to do, but no one ever asked us about it,” Schroer said, to laughs from the audience.
He also said that interstates throughout Tennessee are only at 20 percent capacity.
“We’ve got lots of capacities on highways, we’re just not utilizing them very efficiently,” he said.
“If you look at downtown Nashville, that’s not our issue. We do have traffic, we know we have traffic, but it can be better managed,” Schroer insisted. He pointed to flexible scheduling, which many companies now use to reduce traffic congestion.
“Having alternative work force solutions, dealing with modern technology, all those things will prepare us for the future.”
The town hall is a monthly conversation held by the Williamson, Inc. Chamber of Commerce to discuss government movement on issues pertaining to the community.