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Lawmakers: Haslam needs to unveil transportation funding plan

Hank Hayes • Jan 5, 2016 at 10:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Kingsport area lawmakers in the Tennessee General Assembly agree the state’s way of funding transportation — mainly new roads and road upkeep — should change.

But, in a meeting with members of the Times-News Editorial Board, they insisted Gov. Bill Haslam needs to take the lead and unveil a plan.

Haslam, a Republican, held a series of events last year to highlight the state having $6 billion in current unfunded transportation needs, but he didn’t pitch a solution.

“I think what the governor needs to do is put an actual proposal on the table,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said. “He’s never done that. That keeps people from being in a fear of the unknown ... There’s a Vanderbilt poll that came out and said if the (gas) tax (increase) is under 10 cents, something like 62 percent of the people agree with that ... If he comes up with a concrete plan, I think it has a shot at passing, I do.”

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.

Lawmakers suggested a number of changes might be on the table — including vehicle user fees and an increase in the tax on diesel fuel — after the 2016 legislative session begins Jan. 12.

State Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, indicated he’s gotten little pushback from constituents on a possible gas tax increase.

“I have a small percentage saying ‘We don’t want any tax’ and then I say ‘How are you going to pay for this (transportation upgrades),’ they really don’t have an answer,” Hulsey said. “I think in the final analysis, everybody has to understand we have to do something and move on it. It’s going to involve the gas tax and some other things.”

State Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, wants a detailed plan to avert what some see as a transportation funding crisis.

“The one issue is we’re not in a crisis right now, but would be in three to five years potentially,” Lundberg noted. “I think for those legislators there to say ‘Somebody should have fixed it’ ... We need to fix it and do it right.”

During a stop in Kingsport last summer, Haslam said 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.

Haslam also 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.

Newly appointed state Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville, said the Hawkins County portion of his House district gets about $1.6 million in annual gas tax revenues.

“There are roads in Hawkins County that need to be fixed and the only way they are going to get fixed are with new revenue streams,” Hicks said. “The gas tax is a more fair tax rather than putting it all on property owners.”

State Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, indicated vehicle user fees will get a lot of debate.

“I feel like a lot of what we deal with in the legislature is when technology outpaces the law,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we’re there ... We have commercial trucking coming through Tennessee and they are not paying to keep (the road system) up ... that discussion has to be had in Nashville.”

Lundberg pointed out part of the reason why Tennessee has a funding problem is because the legislature hasn’t passed his so-called “Pass The Bottle” bill to ban all alcohol consumption in moving vehicles.

The inability of the bill being passed, Lundberg argued, has cost Tennessee millions in federal highway dollars.

Lundberg promised he’ll file the bill again this year.

“If you look back over the last 12 years, you’re talking a quarter billion dollars of federal money that we could have used to fix roads and bridges,” Lundberg said of the federal money the state has lost. “The time seems to be right for that (bill) to pass.”

For more about the General Assembly go to www.capitol.tn.go.

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