January 20, 2023 9:00am

Green light: 'Choice Lanes'

Private school voucher proposal divides Power Poll respondents

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

Area Power Poll members appear to be ready to pay more to get where they are going faster.

More than three-fourths of respondents to the January Power Poll said they favor the creation of "choice lanes," which are traffic lanes built along interstate lanes and allow motorists to pay to use them — and avoid frustratingly clogged interstates.

State leaders have proposed "choice lanes" to help alleviate congestion, especially around Tennessee's largest cities. Department of Transportation officials project that travel time between, say, Chattanooga and Nashville, could rise by up to 60 minutes over the next two decades.

The advantage of "choice lanes" is that they are a product of public-private partnerships and would not require tax increases or taking on added debt (as it is now, Tennessee is a pay-as-you-go state with road work paid for with fuel taxes). Partners from the private sector would build, finance and operate the lanes. The state would lease the lanes and would retain ownership of them.

In answer to the question: "Do you support the creation of so-called Choice Lanes in Tennessee to relieve traffic congestion on the state's most traveled roads?" 76% said "yes" and 24% said "no."

Supporters note that "choice lanes" won't be mandatory — motorists will choose to use them. In other words, these are not toll roads such as those you would see in Pennsylvania, for example.

The "choice lanes" proposal was rolled out earlier this month by Gov. Bill Lee as part of his "Build with Us" transportation plan.

The Tennessee General Assembly will take up the proposal in coming weeks.

While Power Poll respondents gave the green light to Lee's "choice lanes" proposal that would speed up getting from Point A to Point B, just over half of respondents flashed a red light on expanding private school vouchers to Hamilton County.

Asked, "Do you support the expansion of private school vouchers to Hamilton County?" 52% said "no" while 48% said "yes."

Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire has dropped a bill to expand the voucher program from Shelby and Davidson county school districts to Hamilton County.

Debate about the proposal is guaranteed to be robust. He told the Times Free Press that Hamilton County has failed students in struggling schools for too long. It's time to give parents of qualified students an opportunity to send their child to a school of their choice, he argues.

The program allows low-income students to access up to $8,200 of state and local money a year to pay for private school tuition and other related expenses.

Opponents have sounded the alarm. Questions about draining money from local public schools and academic accountability have been raised.

Jaime Kerns, a co-founder of Culture Chatt, said most Tennesseans would not see the benefit of the voucher program.

"Using tax dollars that come mostly from middle and lower income families to support private education is tone deaf to our current ranking of 42 in the nation, as well as the clear need in rural counties to better fund public education," she wrote.

But Nick Decosimo, senior advisor at Decosimo Corporate Finance, said choice is key in helping the county's – and state's — students gain the skills they need to succeed.

"Our public schools are failing many of our children in spite of efforts to help from throughout the community over many years," he wrote. "If a voucher can help a parent save their child, why should we deprive them of that opportunity?"

Stay tuned for what is sure to be bruising debates in the legislature over this issue.

On a lighter note, Power Poll members were asked which retailer they would most like to see enter this market.

Of the nearly 100 responses, the top choice — by far and away — was IKEA, the Swedish home furnishing brand. Twenty-nine Power Pollers indicated they wanted to see the brand here. Crate and Barrel followed with nine mentions, and newcomer Buc-ee's also registered with nine (it's worth the drive to Calhoun, folks. A cultural experience all its own).

In descending order, then, was Pottery Barn, Nordstrom, William Sonoma, an Apple Store (gosh, I heard we have one coming!), Macy's, Restoration Hardware, a PGA Superstore, then Kroger. We also saw a smattering of onesies: a downtown Trader Joe's, Orvis, West Elm, Tommy Bahama, L.L. Bean (awesome), Boden, CB2, Patagonia, Mejuri and Madewell (men's), Fabletics, Forever 21, Free People.

That's a good hunting list, for sure.

And finally, with apologies to Tresa McCallie, founder of Chattanooga Connected, it's clear our Power Poll membership is squarely on "Team Beth." Eighty percent sided with Beth Dutton over her adopted brother, Jamie Dutton, who got 20% support.

Tresa wrote: “[I] have no idea what a 'Yellowstone fan' is. Please, no more questions like this!”

No worries, for now, Tresa. The TV show is on hiatus right now. But I am not sure I can make a promise about future questions.

Tom White, senior vice president for investor relations at UNUM, is clearly a "Yellowstone" insider.

His comment?

"Jamie [is] heading to the train station!" Gosh, I just hope he doesn't see it coming.

Thanks for reading, Power Pollers. Drop me a line if you have survey ideas at cvass@powerpoll.com or cvass@timesfreepress.com.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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