By Scott Robertson
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam brought a road show that included Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges and Transportation Commissioner John Schroer to Kingsport Aug. 17. Haslam invited local government and business leaders, as well as the media, to discuss the problem of funding Tennessee’s road and infrastructure projects under the current formula.
“This is not a time when we will propose a solution to the issue,” Haslam said. “This is a time for us to talk about what the issue is – why we have a strain on our infrastructure system in Tennessee.
“There are $6 billion worth of projects in Tennessee right now that are approved but not funded. Those aren’t just made up things we would like to do. They are things we really need.”
Tennessee has maintained the same formula for paying for road and bridgework since 1989. That amounts to a 35 to 40 percent tax break when comparing 1989 dollars then to current dollars today. Cars get better mileage, so drivers pay less tax per mile driven. “People having more money in their pockets is great,” Haslam said. “But the fact is that in paying for the roads that we love and appreciate, we have that much less funding.” At the same time, the cost of doing repair and maintenance on existing roads and building new roads and bridges has risen. “This is not sustainable,” Haslam said.
Schroer made the point that simply cutting spending will not solve the problem. “We have been streamlining and reorganizing this department for four years to make it as efficient as possible. We have turned over every rock to find money. We spend less money per capita than any state in the nation on our highways, yet our roads are ranked in the top three or four states in America every year. We are getting our dollar’s worth, but as the governor said, that’s not sustainable.”
Because Tennessee has been a pay-as-you-go state on road projects, taxpayers have never had to pay interest on infrastructure, keeping costs low compared to other states. But the rising costs and continually dropping gas tax collections make it impossible for that model to continue without an increase in year-to-year revenue from some source.
While he did not specifically state any proposal for how to raise the funds, the governor did single out one method he would oppose: toll roads. Aside from that, he said, all options should be on the table at this time.