MURFREESBORO — Gov. Bill Haslam’s quest for revenues to fund $6 billion in overdue highway projects may face a road block in the Tennessee General Assembly.
The Tennessee Senate, for example, will oppose any proposed gas tax hike in the coming election year, state Sen. Bill Ketron said Wednesday.
The Murfreesboro lawmaker during a phone interview said he recently asked his fellow members of the Senate Republican Caucus about their positions on possible legislation to increase a gasoline tax that the Legislature set at 21.4 cents per gallon in 1989 to pay for road projects without going into debt then or now.
“I talked to every member by phone as caucus chairman,” said Ketron, whose GOP caucus holds 28 of 33 Senate seats. “If the governor presents that (gas tax increase) to us, I don’t see that passing since we have a majority. Not this year anyway being an election year coming.
“I just don’t feel there’s enough to pass it in the Senate. The taste is just not there for a gas tax increase this year.”
The gas tax issue comes at a time when the Republican governor has recently traveled with the Tennessee Department of Transportation staff to hold public meetings with local officials to discuss finding ways to fund the state’s unfunded road projects, such as an estimated $41.8 million needed to widen New Salem Highway (state Route 99) from Old Fort Parkway (state Route 96) to Veterans Parkway.
One of the meetings took place at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce.
Haslam questioned if Senate members have decided against any possible gas-tax increase.
“I’m not certain I totally agree with that assessment of the Republican Caucus,” Haslam said during a Thursday interview while in Murfreesboro to attend a Schwan Cosmetics opening for a factory and offices on Joe B. Jackson Parkway. “We’ve had lots of folks say, ‘We’re interested in doing it, and we’re doing it now.”
Haslam noted that no formal proposal has been made on funding roads.
“I would encourage the legislators to wait to see what is the proposal and what are the roads that are influenced,” Haslam said. “Nobody wants to have a gas tax, but what I encourage folks is let’s look and see what the proposal will be and the road projects that will be impacted by doing something or not doing something. There is a real effect of that.
“Our job is trying always to get to the best answer,” the governor added. “If they want to say, ‘It’s an election year; let’s put it off,’ we can do that, but everybody just needs to remember we have a $6 billion backlog of projects. That’s just putting things further back. Under the current process, we have some projects that are approved that won’t happen until 2035. We can’t just keep kidding ourselves and saying, ‘Well that project has been approved, it’s going to happen,’ when there is no funding for it.”
Paying for roads
The overdue projects include $22.9 million in funding to widen West Jefferson Pike in Smyrna from state Route 840 to Nissan Drive that leads to the town’s automobile factory.
A fellow Republican, state Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, during a Wednesday phone interview agreed with Ketron’s position.
“I have already come out and said I was not in favor of raising the gas tax this year,” said Tracy, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman who is running for re-election in 2016 in a district that includes part of Rutherford County. “First of all, we’ve got to look at the whole picture of transportation funding. We have to look at electric cars and look at compressed-liquid-natural-gas cars,”
Like the governor, Tracy has started holding meetings across Tennessee this fall to hear from residents and learn about road needs in the next 10 to 15 years in all 95 counties.
“We have to put together a tighter long-term plan,” Tracy said. “We’re not there yet. We are looking at all kind of solutions. We are elected to come up with solutions to problems. First of all, we have to define the problem of where we need to build more roads.”
Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess wants lawmakers to avoid delays and pursue legislation soon to generate revenues needed to pay for $6 billion in unfunded road projects, as well as money for mass transit, airports and other transportation issues.
“Our citizens deserve a comprehensive study to identify revenue sources, which might include a gasoline tax, which might include a registration fee, which might include sales taxes, which might include other revenues,” the Republican mayor said,
Nashville area is expected to add more than a million people by 2035 and must have adequate transportation to serve the growing population, Burgess added.
“The quality of life and the economic viability and success of our citizens is at major risk without proper focus and commitment to addressing these transportation needs,” Burgess said.
Retired banker Bruce Plummer of Murfreesboro also wants to see the lawmakers address how the gas tax has failed to keep up with inflation.
“We just can’t keep putting off critical issues, particularly the highway system in Tennessee,” said Plummer, who has lived in Rutherford County for 42 years, “We have got to get enough money in the budget to take care of these road projects, particularly in Rutherford County. We have already been told the average on most of these projects is 12 years. If we don’t do something with the gas tax, we’ll be at gridlock. We have to do something about gridlock.”
It’s going to be easier to raise the gas tax now than it has been in more recent years because gas prices are down, and the projections are that they will be down the rest of the year and the first part of next year, Plummer added.
“So get the people used to it now,” Plummer said. “When it goes back up, it will be more difficult to raise gas taxes. And more importantly, it needs to be done.”