Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy is planning an info-gathering, public-opinion-gauging trek of his own to follow-up Gov. Bill Haslam’s roadshow to talk up Tennessee’s transportation needs.
The Shelbyville Republican announced this week he’ll be visiting eight cities across Tennessee over the next several weeks, beginning in Nashville on Sept. 17.
Among the topics that’ll come up is upping the portion of pennies state government will siphon off per gallon of gas motorists purchase.
Tracy’s plan is to facilitate community forums on the conditions, needs and funding picture involving the state’s transportation system.
A press release from his office said the meetings will include presentations from the state comptroller’s office and road-infrastructure planning experts.
Although the prospect of raising gas and diesel taxes in the state is in the discussion mix, Tracy — along with other powerful GOP state lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and House Speaker Beth Harwell — has indicated he doesn’t expect the General Assembly to pass a hike in the 2016 legislative session.
“We’re a long ways from getting there, because we’ve got a lot of studying to do to figure out how much we’re going to need to fulfill the roads and the bridges across the state,” Tracy told TNReport.
“I want to see what our needs are to the next 10 to 15 years,” he said. “We don’t need a band-aid approach. We’re not running this like Congress is. Congress is patching it three months at a time. Tennessee is one of the best run states in the country — we want to keep it that way and to do that we have to plan for the future.”
Gov. Haslam has been meeting over the summer with business leaders, politicians, roadbuilders and freight haulers to impress upon them that there’s a long-range road-building and repair funding deficit looming in Tennessee.
The state has a transportation project backlog in excess of $6 billion, according to Haslam.
The governor told TNReport last month he’s acutely aware that the topic of raising gas taxes — or any tax — is typically an unpopular one in Tennessee. But Haslam hopes people connect good roads with improved long-term prospects for a good economy.
“I think the more you talk about this, the more people understand the need,” said the governor. “In general, when we talk about changing the way we pay for anything, nobody likes that idea. But when you explain, ‘Hey, you are actually paying 30-50 percent less to drive on our roads than you did 20 years ago.’ And those roads cost twice as much to maintain and build. People understand that — that you just can’t keep going that direction and have it work forever.”
Haslam hasn’t yet committed to proposing a gas tax hike when the Legislature convenes in January. But vehicles are getting better and better fuel efficiency, and the administration argues that the current 21.4 cents per gallon levy isn’t covering new construction and maintenance costs — a perspective backed by the state’s comptroller.
“In the last several years, revenues dedicated to transportation have stagnated in Tennessee and across the country,” according to a report issued earlier this year by the state’s Office of Research and Education Accountability. “Tennessee’s fuel taxes are not expected to be sufficient to maintain existing infrastructure and meet long-term transportation demands.”
The governor has said he’s uninterested in either the state taking on debt to pay for highways in Tennessee, or introducing toll roads as a new revenue stream.
Tennessee’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a nation group associated with the billionaire Koch brothers that advocates lower taxes and shrinking government, is leading the charge to defeat any effort to make motorists pay more at Volunteer State fuel pumps.
AFPTN, which successfully lobbied last winter to derail the Haslam administration’s plan to expand Medicaid in Tennessee, is pressing federal and state lawmakers to fight against any gas tax increase proposals in Nashville or Washington.
Haslam’s tour of the state to discuss “transportation and infrastructure needs” winds up next week, with stops in Chattanooga and Cleveland on Wednesday, and Knoxville and Lenoir City on Thursday.
Dates and venues for Sen. Tracy’s transportation forums are listed below:
Thursday, September 17th at 2:00 p.m. CDT
Legislative Plaza, Senate Hearing Room
301 6th Avenue NorthNashville, TN 37243
Tuesday, September 22nd at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Cherry Theater at Columbia State Community College
1665 Hampshire Pike
Columbia, TN 38401
Tuesday, September 29th at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Shelby County Board of Commissioner’s Chambers
160 North Main Street
Tuesday, September 29th at 6:00 p.m. CDT
The Carroll Bank and Trust Community Room
19510 West Main St.
Huntingdon, TN 38344
Thursday, October 1st at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Northwest Tennessee Development District Office
124 Weldon Drive
Martin, TN 38237
Thursday, October 1st at 2:00 p.m. CDT
Southwest Tennessee Development District Office
102 E. College Street
Jackson, TN 38301
Thursday, October 15th at 10:00 a.m. EDT
205 Bridgewater Road
Knoxville, TN 37923
Wednesday, October 28th at 2:00 p.m. EDT
Hamilton County Commission Room
624 Georgia Avenue #401
Chattanooga, TN 37402
Thursday, October 29th at 10:00 a.m. EDT
Kingsport Center for Higher Education
300 West Market Street
Kingsport, TN 37660