Gov. Bill Haslam told Williamson County officials gathered for a transportation summit in Brentwood on Monday morning that there’s no magic to getting the state’s roughly $6 billion backlog of road projects funded.
Revenues will have to go up.
“All (possible transportation solutions) will mean asking for more money than we’re getting now,” he said.
It’s a call that Haslam has taken on the road recently, making his case for boosting the state’s gas tax for the first time since 1989 in cities across the state.
Early Monday morning, he kicked off the Williamson Moves transportation summit at Tractor Supply Co.’s headquarters by once again repeating the message.
Haslam emphasized that building and maintaining infrastructure is the most basic function of government.
That said, pushing for infrastructure improvement doesn’t exactly make for an exciting campaign platform.
“Nobody really says, ‘I’d like to run for governor and raise the gas tax,’ ” he said.
Still, Haslam said he sees it as his and other elected officials’ duty to convince skeptical constituents that the problem is dire.
Compared with taking on road debt or building toll roads — both of which are options Haslam said he hoped to avoid — raising the gas tax seems to be the least painful prospect.
Haslam said that fuel efficiency has gone up. That, coupled with the fact that road projects have gotten more expensive over the last roughly three decades, means that the state is collecting less gas tax money and the money it does collect doesn’t go as far.
The good news, he said, was that in embarking on a search for solutions, Williamson County is on the right track.
“Williamson County has been at the forefront of communities that have said, ‘We realize we have a really good thing happening here and we’re willing to do everything we can to keep that happening,’ ” Haslam said. “This conversation is one everybody has either already had or they’re going to have it.”
The summit, which ran from about 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., brought together a range of transportation experts at the state, local and national level to speak to a group that included elected leaders as well as government staff members.
Most bolstered Haslam’s point with funding data and growth projections: Though everyone can agree they want to improve transportation in Middle Tennessee, it all comes down to money and the political will to find it.
Local and state governments, officials said, can rely less and less on federal transportation money.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker spoke to summit attendees in a recorded video message.
He blamed Congress for “allowing the Highway Trust Fund to become a failure.”
Soon, though, he hoped that “Washington will soon take a page out of Tennessee’s playbook and pass a long-term (highway funding) bill that I know you would all like to see us do.”
Though over the course of the event, quick live polls showed that attendees saw public transit as a crucial long-term solution, improving existing roadways still emerged as a top priority.
At the end of the event, Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson said that gathering public support for transit options and various funding methods that may include tax increases were important first steps.
“I still think we’re in grass-roots mode,” he said.