Congress continues to punt on passing a long-term transportation and infrastructure bill.
As a result, our national leaders are hurting states and cities’ abilities to build and maintain roads and bridges.
That has a direct effect on citizens’ quality of life, attracting employers and talent, and alleviating commutes, which are getting worse every day.
That will be compounded by the 1-million-plus people who are expected to move to Middle Tennessee over the next two decades.
Road construction and transit projects are being delayed because of declining funds and the inability to do long-term planning. Moreover, states and municipalities are shouldering an ever-growing burden of infrastructure projects with limited resources.
During a meeting with The Tennessean Editorial Board on Wednesday, Sen. Bob Corker, who voted against the latest three-month extension, chided Congress for its short-sightedness. Consider that Congress has not passed a long-term bill in a decade.
“It’s an embarrassment to me,” Corker said. “Both sides of the aisle on this issue have been incredibly irresponsible, and both sides of the aisle are more than willing to live in Pleasantville and throw future generations under the bus to look good to our constituents.
“By passing a highway bill — it’s always short term — so the states can’t plan, the county governments can’t plan, no one can — it’s always short term and it’s always unpaid for,” he added.
Tennessee lawmakers should not aspire to be like Congress, and they should work with Gov. Bill Haslam to outline a strategy for how to pay for future road projects.
On the table needs to be a robust discussion about raising the gas tax.
The last time lawmakers raised the gas tax was in 1989, and it stands at 21.4 cents.
The revenue the Tennessee Department of Transportation receives from the gas tax has gone from $253.8 million in fiscal year 1989 to $393.4 million this year.
That 55 percent nominal increase is deceptive, however, because in today’s dollars the former amount is equivalent to $488.5 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator. That means in real terms, TDOT received the equivalent of $95 million less last year than it did in 1989, to maintain roads and infrastructure.
Conversely, $393.4 million in 1989 dollars would equal $204.4 million today. That means in real terms, TDOT’s funding from the gas tax has fallen by nearly 20 percent over the last 26 years.
It’s no secret that TDOT does not have the money to build roads and essentially is a road maintenance organization. In addition, $400 million in road projects have been delayed. The Transportation Coalition of Tennessee has identified between $6 billion and $8 billion in unfunded road projects.
That cannot be sustained, and that is why state lawmakers need to make the tough decision to raise the gas tax as part of the solution to meet our infrastructure needs. Then they must seriously consider other forms of revenue, such as, tolling, mileage fees or incentives for people to use mass transit.
Haslam has been on a 15-city tour of the state to talk about transportation needs and funding. While he has not called for a gas tax increase, he should.
The same type of leadership is needed at the national level, where the 18.4-cent federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993.
Earlier this year Corker had proposed a 12-cent incremental gas tax increase at the federal level to pay for the spending that exists. He said other alternatives are to spend only the revenue the government gets or to devolve transportation funding to the states.
“If infrastructure is important, let’s pay for it,” he said. “If it’s not important, let’s lower the amount of spending.”
Publications like POLITICO have declared the gas tax “over,” and it and other transportation experts say a mileage tax should be the way of the future.
In concept, that is sound. As consumers choose to drive vehicles with better mileage or that do not use gasoline, the purchasing power of the gas tax for states will continue to decline in value.
The purpose of any fee or combination thereof would be to charge users of the roads for the maintenance and expansion of those roads.
A mileage fee is fairer than a gas tax, but given how difficult it has been to raise the gas tax, it may be a while before this debate comes to the General Assembly.
However, it is time to stop being like Congress and kicking the proverbial can down the road. It is time to take realistic and pragmatic action to benefit the citizens of Tennessee.
The alternative: More clogged roads, longer commute times, less time with your family, more money on gas, a lower quality of life, a less attractive state to residents and visitors alike.
Tennessee has a tradition of being a “pay as you go” state. Let’s just make sure we have the plan and the revenue to pay for what we need.