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VOL. 41 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 6, 2017

Growth accelerates need for Tennessee road projects

By Sam Stockard

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Tennessee’s lieutenant governor-in-waiting predicts Gov. Bill Haslam will propose a modest fuel-tax increase in early 2017 to bolster the state’s road and bridge construction program.

Republican Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, the Senate’s outgoing Budget Committee chairman and likely next Senate speaker, says his “reading of the tea leaves” projects Haslam asking legislators to raise gas and diesel taxes but equalize the rates, which are separated by 3 cents per gallon.

“I think it would be a single-digit type increase in what he proposes,” says McNally, who is expected to be elected to the leadership post by the GOP-controlled Senate when the 110th General Assembly convenes Jan. 10.

Tennessee’s 21.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax, including a 1.4-cent petroleum fee, raises roughly $660 million annually.

It hasn’t been increased in a quarter-century, and Haslam has been broaching the idea for raising or reforming fuel taxes for more than two years to relieve travel congestion statewide. The state’s diesel tax is 18.4 cents per gallon.

Haslam is expected to make his State of the State address on Jan. 30, and a transportation funding proposal could come then. He discussed the matter with House and Senate leadership before the holidays.

“I think everybody just feels like, obviously, this is a big decision for the state, and they wanted a chance to think through it and talk through it with people in their district before they heard our proposal,” Haslam says. “And then at the appropriate time, obviously, we’ll come with our proposal.”

State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, who has chaired the House Transportation Committee, says he believes the governor will push for “comprehensive review” of funding for transportation, and he predicts lawmakers will be “open” to enacting a plan that will help the state over the next 20 years catch up on road projects.

“I am very open to listening to the governor’s proposal because my district seems receptive,” says Matlock, a Republican from Lenoir City.

He acknowledges his constituents in a largely rural area are more concerned about potholes and bridges, while residents in urban and growing areas are focused on traffic congestion.

Growth areas in need

Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess, whose county population is projected to hit 350,488 by 2020 and pass 500,000 by 2037, says he believes the Legislature needs to forge a method to “properly fund transportation,” including roads, bridges and mass transportation, creating a “sustaining source of revenue” to accommodate rapid growth in Middle Tennessee and the ensuing traffic increases.

As Midstate leaders move forward with mass transit discussions, Burgess says the General Assembly should pass legislation giving local governments more options for raising transportation funding so they can “do their part.”

Nashville’s nMotion plan calls for $6 billion in capital spending over 25 years plus major increases in yearly expenses for a transportation strategy that includes longer bus hours, a Music City Star rail line extension, changes in downtown bus movement, faster service to Nashville International Airport and, ultimately, light rail service in four major travel corridors.

Davidson County’s population is projected to grow to 714,756 by 2020 and top 1 million by 2052.

Rutherford County has its own list of road construction projects totaling tens of millions of dollars. But participating in a light-rail project is crucial, Burgess says, and he would like “broader-based” options to put surcharges on existing taxes.

“We need legislative action that would give some autonomy and some authority through a probable referendum process for local jurisdictions to provide the needed revenue to support the needed transportation initiative,” Burgess adds.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says he hasn’t seen the governor’s proposal yet, but he says he believes it will require a good deal of education for people to understand how the state pays for road and bridge construction.

The average motorist in Tennessee drives 15,000 miles a year and pays gas taxes totaling $160, about $14 a month, according to Tracy.

Tracy, a Bedford County Republican who represents Rutherford County as well, says he has asked the governor to pay back the rest of the money taken from the transportation fund in 2007, about $140 million, to help balance the budget.

He has also asked the Tennessee Department of Transportation to come up with a statewide construction plan with cost projections.

The Legislature’s policy is to take on no debt for road construction, instead paying as it goes, Tracy notes, but he is non-committal and waiting for the governor’s proposal before taking a stance.

Nevertheless, he says, “The whole Middle Tennessee area’s growing so fast building new roads is a priority just for the jobs, bringing in jobs, because you’ve got to have roads to get the products in and out.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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