Tennessee officials say a $6.1 billion backlog of state road projects is outpacing gas tax revenues:Vehicles get better mileage than they did 20 years ago. Revenues aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of road repairs.
Gov. Bill Haslam has not said whether a forthcoming proposal would raise gas tax rates. Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, he only ruled out establishing toll roads and additional debt.
“Our parents and grandparents gave us a debt-free road system,” he said. “I think we owe the same thing to the next generation.”
But he said the state will have to look at raising the gas tax “at some point in time.”
The state list of highway projects includes approximately $300 million in the Chattanooga area.
Haslam made his 12th stop on a statewide tour to get ideas for this “critical issue” at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. He met with area transportation planners and lawmakers.
State officials do not expect meaningful reform to the U.S. Highway Trust Fund, putting the Tennessee Department of Transportation in a bind. The federal trust fund is on its 34th extension. Without a long-term congressional solution, TDOT does not know how to plan for future projects.
“The federal government hasn’t done much in a long, long time,” TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said. “I don’t expect a long-term bill anytime soon.”
Deputy Commissioner Paul Degges said the best-case scenario in the current political climate is “status quo” funding. That would leave other projects behind.
Many state lawmakers are increasingly stating their opposition to a gas tax increase. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity of Tennessee is lobbying against it and has released the results of its lawmaker surveyon the issue.
State Sen. Bo Watson said he would not support an increase if he had to make a decision today, but he wants to better understand the state’s options in paying for projects.
“I don’t think anybody in the Legislature is jumping on one particular funding mechanism yet,” he said.
State Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah said he has a hard time explaining road projects to constituents when state highway dollars are used for bicycle lanes in downtown Chattanooga.
“I need to know where the money is going,” Carter said. “I need to know the facts to give the guys at the barbershop.”
State Rep. Patsy Hazlewood said the situation with transportation funding is even more sobering when you add in projects outside the state’s backlog.
“It’s obvious there’s an issue we’re going to have to address,” she said.
Hazlewood said drivers need to “pay their fair share” for road use. She didn’t say whether that means supporting a gas tax hike. The governor has not yet released his proposal, she said.
“What that would look like in the end? I think we have a long way to go,” she said.