CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Gov. Bill Haslam, joined by Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer, visited Clarksville Thursday to discuss the region’s transportation needs with local community leaders and local and state lawmakers.
“Everybody enjoys our great road system, everybody understands how important it is, everybody has projects in their area that they think are critical, and they don’t understand why the state hasn’t funded them yet,” Haslam told The Leaf-Chronicle after the meeting. “Our challenge is that we have less money coming in from fuel taxes because people are getting better miles per gallon.”
The purpose of the 15-city tour is to help people understand “the size of the problem and the time frame involved in solving it,” not to discuss specific solutions, Haslam said.
“We thought it was really important to go out listening … to really two things: one, so that people could understand the scope of the problem and actually what it costs to do road improvements, which is always a little shocking to people; and second, we could listen to areas around the state and what they think the needs are in their area, and whether or not they match the needs that we see from the Capitol,” Haslam said after the meeting.
Haslam told those in attendance that once the meetings were completed, his administration would formulate a plan to present to the legislature in mid-fall, to allow lawmakers time to weigh the proposal and discuss it with constituents.
While state government has several options for expanding road funding — such as raising the fuel tax, adjusting TDOT’s budget sources or creating use fees for non-fuel vehicles — Haslam remained opposed to taking on any road debt.
“The people that ran the state the 200 years before us were responsible enough to pay for what they had, so we’re not paying their interest, and I’d hate to do this to our kids and grandkids,” Haslam said. “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do for Tennessee.”
And not only are fuel-efficient vehicles and more cars on the road adding to TDOT’s financial conundrum, but congressional inaction on adjusting federal highway dollars has taken its toll as well, Schroer said.
According to a TDOT fact sheet, as a result of uncertainty surrounding the Federal Highway Trust Fund money, TDOT, which is funded primarily through federal and state fuel taxes, had to delay around $400 million in 2015 highway projects.
Montgomery County has five unfunded transportation projects at a cost of $128.2 million, according to a TDOT presentation.
And Schroer said the total cost for TDOT’s identified unfunded statewide projects is around $6 billion.
Schroer said the gas tax, which is 21.4 cents per gallon, provides TDOT with about $18 million.
Additionally, while drivers are paying less to use the roads, road creation costs are going up, not only from construction costs, but also because of land purchases for right-of-way use, Schroer said.
“The value of land has increased dramatically in the last four or five years, and that’s a huge part of our costs,” he said.
State and local elected officials told The Leaf-Chronicle recently they were excited about the governor’s visit, and hoped the tour would help provide officials with solutions to address the region’s backlog of road projects.
Tommy Vallejos, the Montgomery County mayor pro tem, attended the meeting in County Mayor Jim Durrett’s stead and told The Leaf-Chronicle he appreciated the governor’s visiting the region to discuss its needs.
“Whether it’s a dream or a possibility — and that’s based on the availability of dollars — I want to be able to say today to our constituents, we voiced your concerns,” Vallejos said. “We just want to continue to push and reiterate that we in Montgomery County would like to have our roads addressed.”
Likewise, after the meeting, Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan told The Leaf-Chronicle she was “pleased and impressed” with Haslam and TDOT for touring the state to learn about regional needs, which are “great.”
“This isn’t a problem that we can just cut our way out of, that the legislature can say, well, we’ll take $100,000 from here and we’ll move it into this pot and it’ll fix the problem,” McMillan said. The large cost for needed projects, which McMillan said comes out to nearly $1 billion for Montgomery County alone, makes the problem of shortfalls in transportation funding one that needs a solid solution, she added.
Additionally, McMillan said that because of the importance of good transportation infrastructure to growing communities, the city was working to contract with the state to help pay for road projects “that are shovel-ready,” including the segment of SR 374 that runs from Stokes Road to Dunbar Cave Road, in order to move those projects along.
According to TDOT’s regional impact analysis, $62.9 million is needed to finish construction on SR 374, which “means it will likely take many years to complete.”
However, Paul Degges, the deputy commission and chief engineer with TDOT, said the length of time spent on road projects can affect economic development and the ability of a state or locality to attract jobs to the area, and there is a definite need to move forward as quickly as possible on road projects.