Too little gas money for roads: Group urges lawmakers, Haslam to fix state transportation fund

TDOT workers repair the road surface on eastbound Interstate 24 at the overpass above Chestnut Street in this April 2015, file photo.

Tennessee officials put the brakes on efforts to increase the state's 21.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax this year and say they are searching for other ways to fuel transportation funding.

But a Tennessee-based advocacy group says public officials better think of something quickly.

On Wednesday, the Transportation Coalition of Tennessee said the state's backlog of unfunded road projects has a $6 billion price tag. And as more of the Volunteer State's roads age, that figure will only grow.

The coalition includes business leaders, community members, public officials and members of other transportation-focused organizations. Its aim is to get Tennessee's road projects funded.

Susie Alcorn, executive director of Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance, a member group of the coalition, said that without new funding, the state will never complete its laundry list of infrastructure projects.

"Without additional revenue, these unfunded projects will be substantially delayed for years or may never be undertaken or completed," Alcorn said. "These projects are desperately needed to maintain our existing transportation infrastructure and show how serious the problem is today."

Hamilton County has multiple state projects amounting to $127 million on the unfunded list.

Those include the $25 million project to widen Interstate 124 from Interstate 24 to the Olgiati Bridge; more than $46 million in changes to the Interstate 24 interchange at Market and Broad streets; and $89 million in widening projects on State Route 317 (Apison Pike).

The state's gas tax hasn't changed since 1989, and the 17.4-cents-per-gallon diesel tax last was increased in 1990. Since Tennessee is a pay-as-you-go state and can't take on debt for transportation projects, the so-called unfunded list has continued to grow.

In January, the state comptroller's office warned that the tax is insufficient to meet the state's needs.

The report suggested raising the gas tax rate or tying it to inflation so that it rises automatically. The comptroller also suggested issuing bonds, charging a separate gasoline sales tax, paying for roads out of the general fund, authorizing local transportation taxes or seeking private funding.

Gov. Bill Haslam rejected a proposed gas tax increase this year, but said he wanted to work toward a comprehensive plan for 2016.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, said he's not heard of many other efforts to fix the fund, either.

"I don't know what the community has as far as an appetite for higher taxes. There just hasn't been much discussion on it that I'm aware of," Gardenhire said, adding that he was not on the Senate Transportation Committee.

Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, lead the transportation committees for their respective bodies. Neither returned telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

But the state is not likely to be able to solve all transportation problems. Proposals to raise the federal fuel tax are also stalled.

In February, The Associated Press reported that the money states get from the federal highway fund has declined 3.5 percent during the five-year period ending in 2013.

And the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations said there are 145 needed state, local or federal transportation projects in Hamilton County. They are expected to cost about $1 billion in the five-year period ending in 2017.

Of those projects, which are scheduled to cost $638 million, 18 were in the planning or design stages and 12 were under construction.

The other 115 projects are concepts, according to TACIR. They are estimated to cost $440 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrog, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.