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Roadblock or hit the gas pedal?

Hank Hayes • Oct 10, 2016 at 8:30 AM

KINGSPORT — We spend more on smart phones than on taxes supporting roads, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer contends.

“A Tennessean driving a vehicle 15,000 miles annually and averaging 20 miles per gallon pays about $300 per year in federal and state gas taxes combined,” according to TDOT.

Schroer, during what was billed as a recent “transportation conversation” at the MeadowView Marriott, is still attempting to drum up grassroots support for changing Tennessee’s transportation funding model.

At the heart of that model is a 21.4 cents per gallon gas tax last set in 1989.

State lawmakers, Schroer said, must have the political will to do something to bring in more revenue to support TDOT’s $1.8 billion annual budget, plus paying for an $11 billion backlog in road projects.

“It might be called a tax but it is an investment in the state of Tennessee,” Schroer said.

He invoked former Gov. Lamar Alexander’s 1986 “State of the State” speech where the now GOP U.S. senator pleaded with state lawmakers to advance the state’s road system.

That speech, Schroer stressed, fueled Tennessee’s growing automotive sector. Since Nissan came to Tennessee in 1980, the state is nationally recognized as the number one state in automotive manufacturing strength, according to TDOT. Exports since 2013 top $5 billion, employment is at 111,000, number of companies is at 900, and more than 660,000 vehicles were made during the year.

“We produce more auto parts than any state in the nation,” Schroer boasted.

Tennessee, within a day’s truck drive to 70 percent of U.S. markets, also leads the nation in distribution businesses, according to Schroer. He said double-digit growth is expected in this sector, led by Memphis-based FedEx, in the next decade.

To advance his argument, Schroer also cited a number of negative statistics: That construction project costs have more than doubled since 1989; road congestion cost per motorist at nearly $1,000 annually; and 43 percent of Tennessee’s major urban highways being congested.

“We found out a whole lot of stuff,” he observed.

Schroer also suggested Tennessee might fall into an uncompetitive situation versus its neighboring states. Virginia, for instance, revamped its funding system and is now bringing in an additional $1.4 billion annually, Schroer said in his presentation.

“While safety is our number one priority, we know transportation means jobs,” he said.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have raised their gas tax or adjusted their tax formula since 2013 to bring in more revenue for transportation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

“Many states are considering new approaches and diversifying their revenue sources by integrating more sales taxes, vehicle taxes and fees, general funds, bonding, etc. into the mix,” according to NCSL. “They’re also thinking about how to create new transportation user funds, by investigating the feasibility of road use charges for drivers, tolling, fees and taxes for alternative vehicles that don’t use gasoline, private-public partnerships and other emerging strategies. These just may be the next big ideas.”

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