Tag Archives: roads

AP story on Haslam road show: ‘Issues are bigger than some of the ideas’

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam sees widespread agreement about Tennessee’s need to spend more on transportation projects.

But there’s little consensus on what to do about it, said the Republican governor who has been traveling the state to hold discussions about what he calls a $6 billion backlog in transportation projects.

“Everybody talks about the needs they have, but then there’s a ‘I’m not really excited about a gas tax, what else can we do?'” Haslam said. “The reality is, there’s not a magic bullet out there.”

Haslam has said he wants to complete his 15-stop tour before deciding what sort of proposal to make to lawmakers when the Legislature convenes in January.

Tennessee is not alone in trying to find more money for road and transit programs. An Associated Press analysis has found that at least half of all states have passed transportation funding measures since 2013, including through higher fuel taxes, vehicle fees and bonds.

Officials in Tennessee pride themselves on a pay-as-you-go approach to road building and maintenance, meaning the state is unlikely to want to be taking on debt for future projects. That makes it unlikely that the state can significantly boost transportation without a tax increase — and that’s a subject that causes some fellow Republicans in the Legislature to recoil.
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More talk on doing something about road money (but not a gas tax!)

Excerpt from the Jackson Sun report on Gov. Bill Haslam’s stop in Jackson today as part of his 15-city road show on problems in funding the state highway construction and maintenance program:

Haslam said his trip across the state isn’t meant to gather support for a gas tax increase. He shuffled around questions about it Wednesday, but he said something has to be done.

“The issue becomes this, at some point in time we have to decide if we’re going to do what Washington does and just keep kicking the can down the road … If we’re going to be responsible to future generations, we’re going to have to have a mechanism to really put a plan in place,” Haslam said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Republican from Collierville, wasn’t at Wednesday’s meeting, but he told The Jackson Sun he isn’t ready for a gas tax discussion because it isn’t the most important issue.

Norris said leaders need to talk to constituents to see what their transportation concerns are. Talking about a gas tax could divert from the importance of having the foundation discussion, he said.

“I don’t want loose talk about a gas tax hike in 2016 to overshadow that dialogue,” Norris said. “We’ve got a lot more studying and discussion to do before we get to that point.”

Haslam said the state is one of five that is a “pay as you go” state, meaning the state has no debt in its highway fund.

Since there currently is no debt to add to, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said the state could look into financing some of the projects by going into debt with bonds with low interest rates.

Norris said other ways of adding to the highway fund have been suggested such as using the state’s surplus funds and taxing electric cars.

Note: See also Sen. Mark Green’s op-ed piece in The Tennessean, headlined “It’s premature to increase Tennessee’s gas tax.” An excerpt:

Something has to be done. However it’s still too early for the panic button and way too early for a gas tax increase… Only the most spend-crazy Washington politicians would suggest increasing taxes with an existing budget surplus.

Transportation Chair Tracy: Repay road funding ‘raided’ by Sundquist, Bredesen

State Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, today declared he will push to “repay” Tennessee’s highway fund the money “raided” for the general fund during the administrations of former Govs. Don Sundquist and Phil Bredesen.

The notion, of course, would seem to dovetail with House Speaker Beth Harwell’s recent call for spending state surplus money from the the just-ended state fiscal year and using it for road construction and maintenance, perhaps lessening the need for consideration of any fuel tax increase. (Note: Related previous posts HERE and, in the form of a Sunday column HERE.) A “repayment,” in other words, would be a reason for spending surplus funds on roads.

Here’s the Tracy news release as provided by the Senate Republican Caucus:
(NASHVILLE, TN), August 10, 2015 – Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) today called for repayment of $280 million raided from the state’s highway fund from 2001 to 2007. Tracy said he would submit an appropriations amendment to the state budget upon the legislature’s return in January calling for the full repayment of the funds over the next two years.

“We have a covenant with our citizens that the gas tax charged by the state at the pump is dedicated to transportation-related purposes and not something totally unrelated,” said Senator Tracy. “It is such an important principle in some states that it is provided for in their Constitutions. This money should have never been diverted for other state government purposes and should have been paid back at the first available opportunity. Instead, we still have a $280 million hole at a time when we are struggling greatly to fund repairs and priority projects. It’s past time for these funds to be paid back.”
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Haslam lays out plans for statewide road revenue tour

News release from the governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that he will be traveling the state with Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer over the next six weeks to discuss the state’s transportation and infrastructure needs relating to the functionality and capacity of Tennessee’s state roads and highways, safety issues around roads and bridges, and the impact infrastructure has on economic development efforts in urban and rural communities.

“Tennessee’s transportation and infrastructure system always ranks at or near the top when compared to the rest of the country,” Haslam said. “We have no transportation debt, and we do a great job maintaining our roads, but we know we have challenges on the horizon.

“We know that we can’t depend on the federal government to be the funding partner that it once was. We also know that as our infrastructure ages, maintenance becomes more important and more expensive. And we know that maintaining our roads is only part of the equation. Right now we have a multi-billion dollar backlog of highway projects across this state that address key access, safety and economic development issues and that’s only going to grow.”

The 15 meetings will be held throughout August and early September in Memphis, Clarksville, Union City, Jackson, Nashville, Franklin, Kingsport, Greeneville, Shelbyville, Murfreesboro, Crossville, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Lenoir City and Knoxville. Participants will include state legislators, mayors, local elected officials, business leaders, chamber of commerce executives, and local infrastructure officials.

“TDOT is responsible for taking care of the assets we already have, for implementing current projects in the most cost-effective way, and for planning for the state’s infrastructure needs of the future,” Schroer said. “In putting together a long range plan, we look to Tennessee communities to help prioritize these projects to make sure we’re addressing evolving traffic patterns, population growth, safety issues, and the many other things that impact our infrastructure. These conversations are invaluable to the process.”

The first meeting will be held Wednesday, August 5 in Memphis at the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

UPDATE/Note: Going by Mary Mancini’s press release response to the Haslam press release, Democrats are somewhat less than enthusiastic. The TNDP release is below.
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Sunday column: Harwell pops Haslam’s gas tax trial baloon

House Speaker Beth Harwell last week popped Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax trial balloon before he could even get it aloft.

The governor, you may recall, has announced an intent to travel the state later this year with a call to “do something” to help the state’s road construction and maintenance program, troubled by rising expenses and stagnant revenue from state fuel taxes that haven’t been changed since 1989. He’s given no specifics, but it’s widely understood that means raising taxes, an abhorrent notion to most members of the Legislature’s Republican supermajority. Democrats aren’t too keen on the idea either.

Enter Harwell with her proposition for doing something: Take money from Tennessee state government’s fattening surplus fund and use it on road construction.

The Harwellian proposal, made in a statement distributed statewide, came just after reports that the “over-collection” in state revenue has reached $551 million. That’s for 11 months of the state fiscal year that ended June 30. With the final month’s receipts are tallied, it’s possible the surplus of tax collections over state expenses will be $600 million or more.

The speaker proposes using $400 million of the surplus “to make significant progress on the backlog” of planned but unfunded road construction projects statewide. The initial response from the administration was, basically: Well, that’s something to think about.

Actually, the governor may be thinking about just giving up on any revenue enhancement for next year’s legislative session, perhaps even this year’s traveling road show. The very idea of a gas tax increase is already under widespread attack. Conservative activists seem almost eager to see Haslam push such a proposal, just so they can fire folks up and shoot it down.

But Harwell, once upon a pre-Insure Tennessee time a dependable Haslam political ally, has in all likelihood beaten the activists to the punch. As a matter of practical politics, few Republican legislators are going to back any sort of tax increase — oh, maybe applying a new fee to electric vehicles that pay no tax now while getting state-approved rebates — with such a prominent person offering the alternative of kicking the can down the road until at least 2017.

Maybe then the state budget overall will be in dire straits, making a tax increase for a specific purpose more politically plausible. If not, well, maybe after the 2018 gubernatorial election, at which time Harwell is likely to be a candidate. If elected, she can perhaps put the matter on the 2019 agenda.

Of course, spending the surplus on roads it not guaranteed. Historically, much more fighting occurs in the Legislature over how to spend extra money than over how to make cuts in lean times. And someone may point out that the present surplus is built on some conditions that don’t apply in the future. For example, the state inheritance tax provided a chunk of that surplus, but will be fully repealed on Jan. 1, 2016.

There may be other ideas. That $400 million would be about enough to repeal the state sales tax on groceries for a year, a proposition likely to be floated by some legislator. But there are no lobbyists for such a move; there are lobbyists for spending on roads and they’re likely to back Harwell’s idea for doing something over doing nothing.

By apparent coincidence, the speaker’s proposal came on the same day the U.S. House voted to put $8 billion into the federal government’s Highway Trust Fund. As approved by the House, with lots of politicking and posturing to ensue in the Senate (where Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker has proposed a straightforward tax increase), the proposal kicks the federal road money problem down the road for five months, providing funding until Dec. 18.

The Harwell proposal, which just might get mentioned in a gubernatorial campaign, would set a precedent in Tennessee — using tax money that didn’t come from the earmarked “user fees,” otherwise known as fuel taxes, to pay for roads. Congress has been doing that for some time in its can-kicking exercises.

So we’ll move Tennessee state government another little step down the road toward imitating Washington. And in this case, it’s at least possible that Congress will act more rapidly than the state Legislature.

Note: In an email, Corker Press Secretary Micah Johnson says the senator’s “highway funding proposal would have created a long-term stable funding mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund and enacted tax relief for American families and businesses, thus we’d argue it was not a “straightforward tax increase.”

The bipartisan proposal would have increased the gas user fee to make our road program whole again while also lowering other taxes by at least the equivalent amount, which would help create more certainty and economic growth.

I don’t disagree with the elaboration on the column’s cryptic reference to a somewhat tangential topic.

Harwell: Spend surplus state revenue on roads

News release from House Speaker’s office
NASHVILLE – Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) today said that as the state is seeing better-than-expected revenues, part of the one-time, surplus money should be used to fund needed road and infrastructure projects.

Transportation officials have testified to the General Assembly that currently, the state highway fund only has enough money for maintenance projects. New construction projects that were slated for 2015 were delayed due to a lack of funding. Media outlets have recently reported that the state will potentially have a surplus of approximately $500 million.

“These road and infrastructure projects are a basic function of state government, and should be considered a priority,” said Speaker Harwell. “As we consider how to best serve the taxpayers, I believe we should consider using a significant portion of this one-time money to fund these projects. We are fortunate to be a ‘pay-as-we-go’ state, meaning we do not go into debt for road projects. By utilizing this funding, we can continue that tradition of responsible fiscal management.”

“I applaud Governor Haslam for highlighting our infrastructure needs, and think using this one-time money will make significant progress on the backlog that has been building,” she said.

Speaker Harwell estimated there could be up to $400 million in one-time funding to fund the projects.

“Road and infrastructure projects have an impact not only on the quality of life for Tennesseans, but also have a positive and lasting economic development impact. I believe it to be a priority, and think this is an investment that will benefit all taxpayers,” Harwell concluded.

Note: The revenue surplus has reached $551 million. Previous post HERE.

McCormick: TN needs to consider borrowing money to build roads

Speaking to the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club on Monday, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said the state should consider taking on new debt to build and maintain roads before a gas tax increase, reports the Times-Free Press.

“We have always paid as we went. Some states issue bonds for these things — I don’t know if we want to do that. I’m not advocating that, but it’s something we need to consider before we go for a big tax increase. And it would not be a penny increase, it would be a very large increase,” McCormick said.

Gov. Bill Haslam said in February he would wait until the next General Assembly session before he proposed legislation to deal with transportation funding.

And using bonds was one of the options listed in a state comptroller’s office report.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson said early this year his office wasn’t making any recommendations, only suggestions.

“I think there’s an acknowledgment of the issue, and I think it’s widespread in the General Assembly,” Wilson said. “But we have yet to coalesce around a solution.”

Note: On Tuesday, McCormick sent the following to media via email:
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) released the following statement to clarify previous remarks regarding transportation infrastructure funding:

“I would like to take the opportunity to clarify my comments made to the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club yesterday regarding Tennessee’s transportation infrastructure. In no way am I advocating for our state to take on debt to fund construction on our roads and bridges. I was simply stating that option might need to be part of a larger conversation to address the problems that we are encountering with the shortfall in funds for transportation projects that impacts all Tennesseans. That being said, I firmly believe that a tax increase should be the absolute last resort and is by no means a foregone conclusion.”

TDOT lists 3-year, $1.2B plan; commissioner frets about fed funding

News release from state Department of Transportation:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer today released the three year transportation program, featuring approximately $1.2 billion in infrastructure investments for 39 individual project phases in 32 counties, as well as 15 statewide programs.

The 2016 building program consists of only two new projects. The rest of the projects listed are projects from the 2015 building program that were delayed due to continued uncertainty of the future of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. In addition to the 2016 budgeted program, partial plans for 2017 and 2018 are included. The 2nd and 3rd year of the program are unchanged from last year’s 2nd and 3rd years.

The current federal transportation funding bill expires May 31, 2015. If a new bill is not passed by Congress, TDOT could lose funding for the remaining four months of the current fiscal year. This is the same situation that forced the department to delay dozens of projects over the last year.

“TDOT is continuing its long held ‘pay-as-you-go’ philosophy, and this three-year plan reflects our state’s ongoing commitment to remain debt free on our roads,” Haslam said. “The department’s conservative approach also ensures that projects already under construction won’t be negatively impacted by decisions out of Washington.”

The two projects added to the 2016 building program include the paving to complete the construction of SR 66 in Hamblen County and funds for Right of Way acquisition for a section of SR 13 in Montgomery County for improvements related to the future Hankook Tire Company manufacturing facility. TDOT will invest more than $680 million in resurfacing and bridge repair and replacement projects over the next three years.
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Mayors want more money for roads and bridges

A group of Middle Tennessee mayors wants Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers to find additional tax revenue to fund road, bridge and sidewalk needs that have piled up in Tennessee, reports The Tennessean.

The Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus, comprised of 40 mayors in Middle Tennessee including Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, listed additional transportation revenue — and a road funding system that keeps pace with inflation — atop its state legislative priorities in a policy statement released Tuesday.

Though the caucus did not recommend a path, their message could provide one more consideration as Haslam and state lawmakers consider what would be Tennessee’s first increase on the tax on gas and fuel in 25 years. The state’s gas and fuel tax is the funding source for Tennessee’s transportation improvement program.

“Mayors know firsthand the impact that aging infrastructure and traffic congestion have on our local communities and quality of life,” said Franklin Mayor and caucus chair Ken Moore. “We’re looking forward to engaging with members of the legislature to find real solutions this year.”

TN bans long trucks from ‘The Dragon,’ a famous stretch mountain road

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is banning trucks longer than 30 feet from using a twisty stretch of U.S. Route 129 that is known as The Dragon.

The truck ban is welcome news to motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts who travel long distances to experience the mountain road famous for its 318 curves in 11 miles along the western edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ron Johnson, the owner of the Tail of the Dragon gift store near Robbinsville, North Carolina, called the decision “long overdue” because tractor-trailers pulling through tight turns can block both lanes of traffic and force cars and motorcycles off the road.

“I’ve had three close calls on the Dragon, where I’m in the ditch and can’t get any further over,” he said. “And trucks come through and miss me by an inch.”

While trucks have been banned from the North Carolina side of the road for a few years, Tennessee until now only posted signs warning truckers of switchback turns on the route.

“They’d say, well it can’t be that bad, and it’s another 100 miles to go around,” said Johnson, who has in the past taken it upon himself to ride his motorcycle out ahead of trucks to warn oncoming traffic.

“We didn’t hold this against the truckers because they didn’t know,” he said.

State records show of the 1.4 million vehicles that traversed the Tennessee side of the Dragon between 2010 and 2012, there were total of 204 crashes — with motorcycles making up 82 percent of them.
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