NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam launches a statewide tour next week, in Memphis, to discuss Tennessee’s highway and bridge needs and its inadequate funding to pay for them, his office announced Tuesday.
The tour is widely seen as the opening campaign for the state’s first gasoline and diesel fuel tax increase since 1989. The governor will be joined on the 15-city tour by state Transportation Commissioner John Schroer, who began the current discussion last year when he told a group of local officials in Knoxville that the state’s current transportation funding system, combined with the federal government’s failure to agree on a transportation funding plan, is inadequate to pay for the highway and bridge construction needed statewide.
The governor’s office said the tour will “discuss the state’s transportation and infrastructure needs relating to the functionality and capacity of state roads and highways, safety issues around roads and bridges, and the impact infrastructure has on economic development efforts in urban and rural communities.”
A fuel tax hike will face an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told a Chattanooga Republican club this month that the state must take some steps to keep roads and bridges maintained but said lawmakers have not coalesced around a plan and may consider going into debt as an alternative to raising taxes — paying for road and bridge construction by selling state bonds that must be repaid, with interest, over time.
The state historically has avoided highway debt and paid for construction and maintenance with state and federal fuel and motor-vehicle tax revenues.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said on July 15 that part of $500 million in higher-than-anticipated state revenue the state collected in the fiscal year that ended June 30 should be used to fund road and infrastructure projects.
“Infrastructure projects are a basic function of state government, and should be considered a priority,” Harwell said. “As we consider how to best serve the taxpayers, I believe we should consider using a significant portion of this one-time money to fund these projects.”
State officials may also consider raising taxes and fees on electric vehicles, hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles.
Haslam said in Tuesday’s media release: “We have no transportation debt, and we do a great job maintaining our roads, but we know we have challenges on the horizon. We know that we can’t depend on the federal government to be the funding partner that it once was. We also know that as our infrastructure ages, maintenance becomes more important and more expensive. And right now we have a multi-billion dollar backlog of highway projects across this state that address key access, safety and economic development issues and that’s only going to grow.”
Tennessee’s gasoline tax, 21.4 cents per gallon, was last increased in 1989 and is currently 12th lowest among the states. Diesel is taxed at 18.4 cents per gallon, the sixth lowest among the states.
The meetings will be held through August and September, starting Aug. 5 at the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce and later in Clarksville, Union City, Jackson, Nashville, Franklin, Kingsport, Greeneville, Shelbyville, Murfreesboro, Crossville, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Lenoir City and Knoxville.
At each stop, the governor and his TDOT commissioner will highlight major local highway and bridge projects that are on hold for lack of funding.