KINGSPORT — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam pitched the idea that the state’s transportation system is heading toward a crisis to a Kingsport Chamber of Commerce board room full of state and local elected officials on Monday.
Haslam, a Republican, stressed he didn’t come to Kingsport to propose a solution to the state having $6 billion in current unfunded transportation needs.
“There’s not a magic bullet out there,” said Haslam, who later told reporters his administration will make a decision this fall on whether to have a legislative proposal to address the issue next year.
Among those unfunded transportation needs included five Kingsport area road projects valued at a total of $147.7 million. The biggest is the $48.6 million unfunded first phase of the State Route 126 upgrade project from East Center Street to east of Cooks Valley Road.
Tennessee’s 21.4-cent gas tax hasn’t gone up since 1989, but the state has no road debt under its longtime pay-as-you-go policy.
This year, seven states — Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington — passed legislation to increase gas taxes, while Kentucky and North Carolina altered the structure of their taxes in order to limit decreasing revenues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Haslam warned that state and federal revenues coming into the annual $1.8 billion Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) budget aren’t keeping up with the state’s growth.
“You get better mileage, which means to pay less cents per gallon in fuel tax, and that’s great,” Haslam said of today’s more fuel efficient vehicles. “There are less air quality issues and more money in your pocket. All that is great. The reality is that paying for the roads we love and appreciate ... We have less funding to do that.”
A 2015 Tennessee Comptroller’s report on transportation funding agreed revenues are not expected to be sufficient to maintain current infrastructure.
Compounding the problem, argued TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, has been Congress’ inability to pass a long-term bill funding the Federal Highway Trust Fund.
Money from that fund comes to the states, but TDOT said it was forced to delay $400 million in road projects this year because of “funding uncertainty” from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.
“We spend less money per capita than any state in the nation on our highways,” Schroer declared. “(But) our roads are ranked in the top three or four (in the nation) every year. We are getting our dollars’ worth.”
State officials also pointed out Tennessee roads will have 56 percent more freight traffic, while two million more people will be added to the state’s population by 2040.
TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges said that this year, 95.4 percent of the state’s interstate pavements are in very good condition, but will decrease to about 60 percent at current funding levels.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, insisted state government needs to take care of its infrastructure.
Before Haslam’s event, Ramsey suggested a gas tax increase may not be dead on arrival next year.
“I think the House will have a rough time (with a gas tax increase) but in the Senate we understand there is a problem,” Ramsey said. “The problem is we’re not keeping up with technology. Our revenues have been flat or falling. One of the most important things government does is build roads and infrastructure. It might be the number one priority besides education ... If there is a specific solution, we would be willing to look at it. I know I would.”
Haslam, who’s in his second term, indicated he can’t put the issue off for the next administration to handle.
“We take a lot of pride in being a conservative state,” he said. ” ...If you had a family farm and it had been in your family for generations, and you said you didn’t want to spend money on this family farm ... you haven’t done the conservative thing if you pass it on to the next generation.”
Tennessee’s transportation system includes 95,000 miles of roads, 1,100 miles of interstates, 19,000 bridges, 28 transit systems in 95 counties, 79 general aviation airports, 949 miles of waterways and more than 3,000 miles of railroads.
The Haslam administration is welcoming public input about the issue, and people can do that by sending an email to: [email protected]