Haslam pushes gas tax increase to fix state roads during Chattanooga visit

Inside the Tennessee Welcome Center on Interstate 75, Governor Bill Haslam speaks about possible solutions for the Interstate 75/I-24 junction project as one of the transportation needs for our area. TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, right, listens.

We're fortunate. We have a good road system. But it won't stay that way under our current structure.

Gov. Bill Haslam barnstormed through Chattanooga on Monday to reiterate how little funding there is for current and future road projects in Tennessee.

To put the current backlog of projects in perspective, Haslam said his 1-year-old grandchildren will be in college by the time projects like the widening of Bonny Oaks Drive are completed.

Backlogged TDOT projects

Here are some of the backlogged TDOT projects in the greater Chattanooga area:Interstate 24-Broad Street interchange (Hamilton) — $46.25 millionBonny Oaks Drive/Apison Pike upgrades (Hamilton) — $89.4 millionHighway 64/Ocoee River Gorge bypass (Polk) — $1 billionHighway 30 upgrades (Rhea) — $46.9 millionHighway 60/Westlake Drive upgrades (Bradley) — $13.8 millionSource: Tennessee Department of Transportation

photo Inside the Tennessee Welcome Center on Interstate 75, Governor Bill Haslam speaks about possible solutions for the Interstate 75/I-24 junction project as one of the transportation needs for our area.

With Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer at his side, the governor again tossed out a potential state gas tax increase as a solution.

In August, Haslam kicked off a multi-month bus tour of Tennessee in which he intended to raise awareness of the state's road funding woes and stump for solutions. He arrived in Chattanooga this week with two lists in hand: one, a 13-page stack of backlogged TDOT projects that have been approved by legislators but which don't have funding; the other, a 39-page stack of road projects that need to be done but can't be started until 2022 because of a lack of money.

The cost to complete all the currently backlogged projects is $6.1 billion, according to TDOT. The cost to complete all the proposed, but unstarted, projects is $5.3 billion.

During his short address at the Tennessee Welcome Center on Interstate 75, the governor called transportation infrastructure the government's single biggest responsibility.

"It's the thing nobody can build for themselves," he said. "Nobody can build their own roads and bridges. It's impossible."

He also touted the state's stellar road record, one that is marked by a lack of debt thanks to a pay-as-you-go approach, and one that's a mainstay among national road quality reports.

Haslam said Monday that Tennessee's road spending is ranked third least in the country, while Tennessee's roads are ranked third best.

He painted a dimmer picture of the future, if things continue the way they are going.

"We're fortunate. We have a good road system," he said, "but it won't stay that way under our current structure."

By 2040, 2 million more people will be living in Tennessee, he said, and innovations in fuel economy and power supply have resulted in vehicles that either use less fuel than ever - resulting in decreases in fuel tax income - or use no gasoline or diesel fuel at all.

Tennessee's gas tax rate now is 21.4 cents per gallon. It hasn't been increased since 1989. Combined with the federal government's 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax, Tennesseans pay nearly 40 cents per gallon in fuel taxes.

Diesel users pay 18. 4 cents per gallon in Tennessee tax and 24.4 cents per gallon in federal tax, for a combined 43 cents per gallon in taxes in Tennessee.

Haslam pointed to more fuel-efficient tractor trucks as another source of lost transportation revenue.

"That truck that used to get four miles per gallon now gets eight miles per gallon," he said.

With 50 percent of the state's road revenue gone, and maintenance costs on the same roads three times higher, there's trouble.

"Anybody can figure out that, long term, that won't work," Haslam said.

The Republican governor has faced plenty of opposition to his gas tax proposition, even from members of his own party.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, heads the Senate transportation panel and has been outspoken against a hike in the state gas tax.

Tracy told The Associated Press in September, "I don't think it's doable, because we've got a lot of work to do to put it together."

Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, a grassroots group for limited government, has also actively campaigned against a gas tax hike, saying such a move would hurt Tennesseans who "need the tax relief the most."

Haslam deflected questions about party opposition to his proposition during Monday's visit in Chattanooga.

"We need to start by talking about what the needs are," he said. "Let's lay out the plan. Let's agree on the plan. Then let's figure out how we're going to pay for it."

Haslam couldn't say, either, whether 2016 will be the year of a solution, but said he feels pressed to come up with something by the time his second term ends in three years.

Schroer said with TDOT's current $500 million annual funding, the issue is not whether road projects in Tennessee get done, but when they'll get done.

He pointed to the Interstate 75 and I-24 split, just up the road from the welcome center; a dangerous intersection of two urban interstates that at one point funnels down to one lane.

"You have the backup. It's horrific," he said.

Schroer said in that case, road improvement is "not a wish. It's a need."

But that's a need that now isn't even on TDOT's to-do list. Meaning an overhaul could be 30-plus years away.

"These programs are going to be done across the state. The question is when," Schroer said. "It's really a question of not money, but time."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.