By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is calling on state lawmakers to decide on Tennessee’s priorities on future road projects before resolving the politically tricky issue of finding a way to pay for them.
The governor said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Monday evening that he is calling for the state House and Senate transportation committees to determine which projects the state needs to complete — and how soon.
“Once we know what the need and time frame looks like, then we can talk about what would the price of that be,” Haslam said. “And only then can you say, let’s talk about ways to pay for that.”
While most lawmakers are happy to lobby for road projects in their districts, many are wary of broaching the subject of the state’s first gas tax hike since 1989. Especially in an election year.
Haslam acknowledged that increasing revenues for road funding is likely a multi-year effort, but said it will be a goal for the term-limited governor to accomplish before he leaves office in 2019 because he doesn’t expect it to be an issue a successor will want to tackle in their first few years in office.
“It’s hard for me to foresee a new governor doing that in their first year or two,” he said. “And I know that if we don’t do anything in the next five years, we’ve got a major problem.”
Haslam earlier in the day unveiled a list of 765 projects around the state worth a total of $5.3 billion that have been proposed by lawmakers and local officials in addition to the $6.1 billion backlog of projects already approved — but not funded — by the Legislature.
Any proposal for new project not already in the pipeline would have to wait until 2022 to be considered by the Legislature, he said. And under current funding conditions, none of those projects would be complete or under contract until 2040.
“It does give people a sense of, ‘You think this is a project is needed, just know that we’re 25 years at best away from that happening,'” he said.
Republican legislative leaders including House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga have voiced opposition to bringing up gas tax hike in the upcoming session, which falls in an election year. But Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville voiced support for the governor’s efforts at a Kingsport event Monday.
“It’s not something that has to be done today or has to be done tomorrow,” Ramsey said. “But soon — very soon — we’re going to hit the wall and have a very big problem.”
“I’m here all behind the governor on this to figure out a way to solve this problem,” he said.
Haslam said the state’s transportation needs aren’t limited to roads. Traffic congestion in rapidly-growing Nashville and surrounding counties points to the need to develop mass transit options, he said.
“That has to be part of the conversation,” Haslam said. “There’s a cost to our quality of life when that many people are spending that long sitting in their cars.”
Note: The Haslam news release is posted HERE.