Haslam, state officials welcome federal highway bill but say it's no cure all for state

A Tennessee lawmaker hopes a new "slow poke law" would prevent slower drivers from cruising in the passing lane, thereby clearing up some traffic on Tennessee's largest highways.

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam and top officials say Congress' first long-term highway bill in a decade will help provide stability to Tennessee transportation planning but is by no means a cure all for the state's long-term funding issues.

"This is a full, funded five-year bill," Transportation Commissioner John Schroerer told Haslam as the commissioner devoted a good part of his annual budget proposal presentation discussing the U.S. Senate and House's passage of the $305 billion measure Thursday.

He said won't have much immediate financial impact but a 2 percent inflation adjustment provision will bring the state an additional $300 million to $400 million over the next five years.

photo Republican Gov. Bill Haslam

"It's a little better than what I thought," Haslam said.

Schroer called it a "decent program" but not as much as the plan proposed by President Barack Obama.

However, neither the provision nor the bill will make up for lost inflationary ground over the past decade as a result of Congress' previous inability to come up with a long-term bill and instead passing a series of short-term extensions, according to Kent Starwalt, executive director of the Tennessee Roadbuilders Association.

Haslam, Schroerer and other state officials have been making the case for months that Tennessee needs a massive infusion of new state dollars, likely in the former of a state gas-tax increase, to fund a massive $6.1 billion backlog of transportation projects.

Schroer said that since the last fuel tax increase in 1989, escalating construction expenses have tripled the costs of road projects. And while the costs for maintaining existing roads, bridges and highways represented 13 percent of Tennessee's transportation spending in 2010, they now account for 17 percent of his budget.

"It's going to continue to eat up costs" unless there is additional state funding, Schroerer said, adding that means less for new roads, expansions of existing ones and other construction.

Meanwhile, the commissioner said his efforts to cut down on costly private consulting firms' work on behalf of the department by moving the engineering, planning and other work back in house is saving the state some $28 million.

In the latest move, Schroer intends to fill another 1,100 positions in addition to the 3,300 workers already working for TDOT. Schroerer and other officials say reliance of private firms had extended into too many areas and were costing as much as three times the amount spent if done by state employees.