Haslam, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Kingsport Mayor John Clark joined selected state lawmakers to make the pitch standing outside historic Yancey’s Tavern resting next to the highway.
State Route 126, also known as Memorial Boulevard, has a $98.7 million construction price tag and is on a $6.1 billion list of 181 unfunded state transportation projects.
“It’s very appropriate we have this event here,” Clark said of the Yancey’s Tavern stop, one of five made by Haslam and Schroer on a statewide tour. “(State Route) 126 is a vital artery to our success as a city on several fronts: less congestion, safety, less fuel consumption, economic development growth opportunities. Although this project was supported by citizens’ committees ... it’s not funded at this time.”
Tennessee’s 21.4-cent gas tax hasn’t been increased by lawmakers since 1989, but the state has no road debt.
Still, Ramsey said the state does have a transportation funding problem.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out ... We’ve had the same (funding) formula since 1989,” Ramsey, R-Blountville, said. ” ... We’re not in a crisis mode yet. It’s not something that has to be done today or tomorrow, but very soon we will hit the wall with a very big problem. We’re against the wall now but not quite through it.”
One of government’s basic responsibilities, Ramsey insisted, is building roads.
Haslam, a Republican, pointed out the current road system is paid for, and is rated the third best in the nation.
“With funding at current levels, that (backlog) list will not be completed or under contract until 2034,” Haslam warned. “The lieutenant governor and I have some young grandchildren. They will be completing college or in college when that list is done.”
TDOT also has a $5.3 billion “needs” list for all 95 counties, totaling 765 projects that may not get considered until 2022 or built until 2040 “if nothing changes,” Haslam added.
A 2015 Tennessee Comptroller’s report on transportation funding said state revenues are not expected to be sufficient to maintain current infrastructure. 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. Tennessee’s population is also expected to grow by 2 million by 2040, which puts a greater demand on the state’s infrastructure, Haslam’s administration has stressed.
Schroer disclosed State Route 126 has seen 367 crashes with more than 200 injuries since 2012 and two fatalities in 2014.
TDOT says the width of the roadway generally needs to be improved from East Center Street to Interstate 81, as most of the existing roadway includes 11-foot-wide lanes with narrow shoulders. It starts as a two-lane highway running through Kingsport and ends as a four-lane thoroughfare near Sullivan Central High School.
The department selected a “Modified Alternative B” plan that does not take graves from East Lawn Cemetery or present an adverse effect to Yancey’s Tavern. State Route 126’s status is it has been funded for preliminary engineering, but not right-of-way acquisition or construction, according to TDOT.
“I have about $500 million a year to solve a $6.1 billion backlog (of projects),” Schroer said. “We have to prioritize ... We have projects like this all over the state.”
Haslam said he’s inviting lawmakers to get involved in transportation planning.
Later, while talking to reporters, Haslam said he doesn’t know yet if he will have a legislative funding reform proposal next year, which is an election year for lawmakers.
Ramsey noted the GOP-controlled legislature will have to be convinced that reform is a conservative idea.
“I’m for changing how we fund roads, but I don’t think the legislature is there yet ... I’m optimistic, but I’m not sure everybody else is,” Ramsey concluded.