Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gave me an exclusive one-on-one interview about his statewide transportation tour that launched in Memphis on Wednesday.
That morning we met in his conference room in the state Capitol in downtown Nashville. Deputy Director of Communications Laura Herzog also was in the room.
The Tennessean editorial board has focused a lot of its efforts on issues of transportation and transit, given the growing attractiveness of Nashville and, consequently, the growing congestion.
Efforts across the community have focused on issues of mobility, from the Nashville MTA and Middle Tennessee RTA’s nMotion strategic road map on transit to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s recently launched “Moving Forward” initiative. This year’s Williamson Regional Outlook had a great focus on transportation, and regional transportation solutions were central to the June 18 Power of Ten conference sponsored by the Cumberland Region Tomorrow.
Mobility is a critical issue to growth, economic development and quality of life in Middle Tennessee.
While the governor said he is not ready to roll out a solution, the tour will give him and Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer the chance to find out what local communities consider their needs, present what the state thinks are the needs in those communities and get a sense of the costs associated with those needs.
Given the dwindling revenue from the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1989 — while fuel economy has improved and labor and road material costs have increased — and the lack of a long-term federal transportation funding bill in a decade, Haslam said “the state’s problem is one of math” and Tennessee cannot continue on this road.
Find an abridged version of the interview between Haslam and me below or listen to the 12-minute podcast of the interview on this subject.
The main purpose of this conversation is to talk about your upcoming transportation tour, to really understand what is the purpose behind it and what is that tour going to look like — and to see whether or not you can give us any details about what you might say.
You know, infrastructure is a little — is not that always that well understood in Tennessee mainly because of how we pay for it. Because the infrastructure, because roads and bridges and funding for that and other methods of transportation don’t come through the general fund budget — they go through TDOT’s budget — people aren’t necessarily aware of both the size and the scope of what we do at TDOT.
TDOT’s budget is about $2 billion a year. But with that the backlog of projects that are needed — and these projects aren’t just wanted, but are needed — is really large. The issue we have in Tennessee is this: We pay for all that infrastructure when we buy gas or diesel at the pump.
The really good news is we all get a lot better gas mileage than we did 20 … when did we last pass the gas tax change?
It’s 26 years. So, the good news is that in the last 26 years, we all get a lot better fuel mileage than we did then. That’s good for the economy, it’s good for the environment. It’s good for a lot of things.
But the bad news part of that is that means that because you pay for roads on a cents-per-gallon basis, everybody’s using less fuel, literally people are paying a lot less for roads and bridges than they did 20-plus years ago. So, the state’s problem is one of math.
As people get better mileage in their cars and trucks, the funding to pay for those roads goes down. Unfortunately, the cost of asphalt and engineers has not gone down. So, that’s the dilemma that the state finds itself in.
The purpose of the tour is to literally go across the state and say — to listen first, to every area and say “What do you think your needs are?” Number 1. Number 2: We’ll present a list of what we think the needs are in the area and we’ll get some idea of what the costs of those projects will be. So, we see this as an educational tour. We’re not out at this point to try to sell a proposal because we don’t know what that would be.
We do feel like the time is right to let people — have people understand. There is a concern about the long-term safety of our existing infrastructure and our ability to meet changing needs.
I envision that being a presentation first by TDOT of here’s where we are now on funding, here’s the projects that we think are needed, then a kind of local area discussion of input from both local elected folks, state representatives and then local highway people as well about their views of the needs.
I know that Tennessee has been a “pay-as-you-go” state historically and you have this $600 million surplus that you have. Would there be any thought to bonding that out to really maximize that especially with $8 billion in unfunded projects?
I would not be in favor of bonding transportation needs for this reason: We’ve been the beneficiary of people who abided by “pay-as-you-go” that came before us. So, we’re not having to live with road debt. We’re not having to pay interest on something that someone else did 20 years ago. It’s a huge benefit.
Not only do we have the state situation, but you add to that … the feds (Congress) haven’t passed a bill in a long time. That means our fed funding has gone down as well. Some of the states that have big road debt — almost all of their money is going to pay interest on that road debt now. While it’s tempting to do that when things get tight, I don’t think it would be wise to leave the path that we’ve been on.
What is the message that you hope to send?
I think that ultimately we — the path we’re on now won’t work. The CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards that will be required for new vehicles by the EPA for 10 years from now, new vehicles will have to average 50 miles per gallon. Now that’s really good news. That will be good for the environment, it will mean people spending less at the pump, etc., but the reality is that means that much fewer money going to address our infrastructure needs. Then you add to that the feds haven’t passed a program and that we have a lot of aging bridges and roads, it quickly becomes a safety issue.
Have you thought about a starting date as to when you could start moving on the project and so forth?
That’s the other point. Thanks for asking. You reminded me of that point. The other thing I’m not certain we have a great appreciation of there is how long the planning time is. If tomorrow we had the funding for a road project that everybody thought was needed and we began working on it, we’re probably seven years away from finishing that. It’s just a long process to acquire the right of way, get the design, get it built.
A typical road project is six to eight years from “go” to where someone’s actually driving on it. So, for us, this is, if we do something on this while we’re here — it won’t be — if we change the way we fund roads, it won’t really impact anything while I’m in office because the lead time is too long. So somebody told me, “Why are you doing all this?” The state can’t keep going like we’re doing now. So somebody has to address it.
Now, how is your commute here (state Capitol) from the Governor’s Residence? Is it pleasant?
First of all, I’m not sure I’m the typical citizen since I have a trooper drive me, but it is interesting. Just in the time — I’ve been here four-and-a-half years. So, from the Governor’s Residence, you can either come 65, you can come up Eighth or you go through 12South and that way. So, you go through 12South and through the Gulch. Those are two neighborhoods that have changed dramatically just in the four-and-a-half years that I’ve been commuting. You see what’s happening over in Germantown. With Williamson County’s growth, look at 65 in the afternoon. With Rutherford County’s growth, look at 24 in the afternoon. Those problems aren’t going to go away.
Nashville’s in a little bit of a unique situation in the state because of its growth. We have what some areas would call the high-class problem of we’re growing so much we’re going to have to look at other alternatives.
So, Nashville’s a little unique in that, but that’s still a real factor as we continue to attract more people here, transportation is one of the biggest issues.
We’re recruiting a company that’s a Fortune 50 company that’s looking at Nashville to move their headquarters. It would be a huge deal for Nashville. We went and met with them. We had a really good, honest conversation. They were worried about issues around diversity and education, but at the end of the day, the conversation we kept coming back to was about transportation. They’re trying to decide — we’re in a list of kind of finalist cities, if you will. We’ll see if we make the — we’re a semifinalist city, that would probably be the best way to put it. We’ll see if we make the list of final cities. That was one of their questions: We’d like to be downtown. What’s the quality of life going to be like for our folks?
It’s an interesting thing, at the Williamson Regional Outlook a few months ago, that was the No. 1 issue that was talked about. One of the panelists talked about, “Someone needs a big, bold idea. Someone needs to come up with a big, bold plan.” I think there’s agreement. The question is, are you that person to bring that big, bold plan?
That’s a really good question. My first just job is to look at transportation things all across the state. And so my sense is Nashville’s idea, that the big, bold idea — first of all, it’s not an easy one.
Mayor (Karl) Dean has worked really hard to come up with some things and, obviously, they haven’t been able to. That’s no fault of his. It’s just hard. It’s hard for two reasons: 1. As a city becomes fully developed, it’s hard to come up with alternative transportation means. No. 2. The federal money is gone.
If you look at how many cities built out, whether it’s a mass transit system or other alternative methods of transportation, they used a lot of federal money that’s just not there anymore. And then combine it with our issues at the state, it’s a lot more difficult proposition than it used to be.
All that being said, I think there’s a consensus in Nashville and the surrounding environs, we’ve gotta do something.
For our rural issues, it’s a big issue of economic development. It’s just access. And again, it’s hard to see that sitting here in Nashville and all its growth. The concern that I have economic development-wise for the state is — we’re doing really well in our urban centers — Nashville’s obviously leading the pack. The more and more rural we get, the more we struggle, there’s several things that are part of that. Some of it is workforce preparation level. But a big piece of that is access, and it always has been.