Haslam Concludes Initial Campaign to Highlight Highway-Funding Shortfall

Gov. Bill Haslam has wrapped up his tour around Tennessee to drum up support for potentially raising the state’s 21.4 cent per gallon tax on gasoline.

Haslam participated in conferences with local political and business leaders for the past six weeks in 15 towns and cities across the Volunteer State. Joining him to highlight road infrastructure deficiencies, highway and bridge maintenance needs and funding deficits for such projects were Transportation Commissioner John Schroer and other TDOT staff.

Despite his concerted effort to stress shortages of state and federal transportation dollars, the Republican Tennessee governor told reporters following the final meeting in Lenoir City on Sept. 10 that he’s not yet sure if he’ll be proposing a tax hike in the coming legislative session, which gets underway in January.

Part of the purpose of the tour around the state, in addition to getting a better sense of the transportation priorities on the minds of local elected leaders, has been to prime the pump for the possibility of a tax-hike proposal.

“The good thing about conversations is that people get a better grasp of what the situation is,” said Haslam last week.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Tracy is planning to begin a tour of his own around the state staring Thursday to further explore road infrastructure needs, as well as the general public’s tolerance level for paying government more at the gas pump.

Haslam said he’s fully supportive of Tracy riding the road-funding circuit himself this fall.

However, Tracy is skeptical the GOP-run General Assembly is prepared to take up a fuel tax increase next year.

The Republican from Shelbyville has also said a priority of his own in 2016 is to siphon more than $260 million from the general fund back into the state’s road construction-and-maintenance accounts.

Tracy argues that money was “raided” from the roads budget back when Democrats controlled the Legislature in the 2000s.

Jim Tracy Bill Haslam“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,” Tracy said in a press release announcing that he and Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, are sponsoring a bill in 2016 to refill the money into road funding. “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. It’s past time we pay it back.”

Haslam affirms he’s open to discussing that issue in the context of larger state general fund budget deliberations with the Legislature. But the amount Tracy and Smith are talking about doesn’t come close to addressing the $6 billion or so backlog in transportation construction and maintenance that the state is facing, said the governor.

“That’s a possibility,” Haslam said of the Tracy-Smith bill to route more than a quarter of a billion back to roads. “But the point I would make is that doesn’t solve our problem. That would take care of one road. Alcoa Highway in Knoxville that they’ve been working on since before I was the mayor of Knoxville — so, for at least the last 15 years people have been saying it is coming — well, it still hasn’t happened. And just that project alone has a $270 million price tag on it. Same thing in Memphis. There is one road in Memphis, Lamar Avenue, that we need to fix. Same thing, $270 million price tag.”

Throughout the statewide tour, Haslam and TDOT staff have been emphasizing a 2015 Tennessee Comptroller’s report that concluded current-level gas-tax revenues are insufficient to maintain existing roads and bridges in the state.

“Cars and trucks are more fuel-efficient, construction and labor costs have risen, and Congress has not passed a long-term transportation funding bill in 10 years,” a press release from the governor’s office this week declared. “Tennessee’s population is expected to grow by 2 million by 2040, which puts a greater demand on the state’s infrastructure.”