Democrats Kyle, Clemmons offer alternative transportation plan

Friday, February 10, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 6
By Sam Stockard

Memphis state Sen. Sara Kyle and Nashville Rep. John Ray Clemmons are pushing a plan to raise fuel taxes for transportation funding similar to Gov. Haslam’s, though it also would give local governments more options for bringing in their own money for mass transit.

The TNForward proposal introduced Monday by the two Democrats would increase the gas tax by five cents per gallon up to 26.4 cents, add nine cents to the diesel tax pushing it to 27.4 cents, indexing them to inflation and population growth, as well as increase vehicle registration fees and pass an open container law.

All told, the plan would bring in $301.7 million more for state and local governments, all of which would go to the transportation fund to start cutting into a $10.5 billion backlog of road and bridge projects statewide.

“We must invest in Tennessee,” says Kyle, contending her four children and people across Shelby County need roads and greater access to transportation. “What this bill does … it gives power to the local governments to address the needs.”

The proposal differs from Haslam’s plan in that it includes no tax reductions and enables local governments the option to raise fuel taxes by 3 percent or adopt other tax increases such as higher wheel taxes or property taxes for mass transit projects, all of which would have to be approved by voter referendum. Haslam’s plans would raise gas taxes by seven cents and diesel taxes by 12 cents, in addition to putting fees on alternative vehicles.

The Clemmons-Kyle plan also would allow creation of a Transportation Services District of Middle Tennessee Regional Transit Authority counties where surplus sales and use tax revenues collected would be allotted to those counties for local infrastructure projects.

Clemmons says the proposal maintains the “integrity” of Tennessee’s transportation funding method by ensuring the state would maintain its “pay-as-you-go” structure. However, local governments would be able to borrow money for transportation projects and pay it back with revenue from the Transportation Services District.

The Nashville representative points out Davidson County’s nMotion plan for the region calls for spending $6 billion over 25 years for a wide-ranging transit plan including rail to outlying areas.

“My big interest is generating revenue for local governments and empowering them to address their transportation needs because all of them are different,” Clemmons says. “But I represent the Nashville area, so I have a strong interest in pumping money into the larger Nashville region and in Davidson County so we can build out a forward-thinking comprehensive transportation plan and infrastructure system because that’s what we need to continue our growth so it doesn’t plateau.”

The plan would not incorporate any of the franchise and excise, Hall income tax or grocery tax reductions included in the governor’s IMPROVE Act, and it would net about $100 million less annually for transportation projects.

Clemmons and Kyle say their plan doesn’t include those tax cuts because those taxes have nothing to do with transportation. Kyle points out Democrats also are proposing legislation to phase out the 5 percent grocery tax over a decade.

Their proposal is just one of the alternatives surfacing in the General Assembly to Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan.

House Republicans are pushing an option to the governor’s IMPROVE Act, one of which would take a fourth of 1 percent of the sales tax to raise about $290 million for transportation. But it would take money from the general fund, a process Tennessee never has used.

Outnumbered by Republicans 94-25 and 28-3, Democrats will have a hard time pushing this proposal through the House or Senate. But Clemmons and Kyle say it makes more sense to give local governments more options to generate revenue through several means than to tie them to a sales tax increase, the method being proffered by sponsors of the governor’s plan.

While Clemmons believes the Nashville region needs the ability to build a mass transit system involving rail, Kyle says Shelby County has different needs because it has Arkansas on one side and Mississippi on the other.

Kyle says the Memphis Area Transit Authority needs more money for buses because it’s had to cancel numerous routes.

“In my district, I have some pretty good roads, as opposed to other parts of Tennessee. However, I don’t have any transportation,” Kyle says. “There’s tons of people that need public transportation in order to go to work, in order to go to their doctors, in order to make other appointments, even getting them to their banking. This bill will allow those actions to happen.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter cover the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at