Tennessee transportation chief says road funding is essential for prosperity

Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer.

State gax tax

› Tennessee’s state gas tax has remain unchanged since 1989, and is currently 21.4 cents per gallon, 18.4 cents per gallon for diesel.Gas tax rates for states bordering Tennessee:› Virginia gas tax: 36.25 cents per gallon — Higher› North Carolina gas tax: 36.25 cents per gallon — Higher› Georgia gas tax: 32.6 cents per gallon — Higher› Arkansas gas tax: 21.8 cents per gallon — Higher› Kentucky gas tax: 21.4 cents per gallon — Same› Alabama gas tax: 20.87 cents per gallon — Lower› Mississippi gas tax: 18.75 cents per gallon —Lower› Missouri gas tax: 17.3 cents per gallon — LowerSource: The Tax Foundation

Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer beat the drum of impending road funding woes at a UTC Engineers Week kick-off lunch on Monday, while taking light shots at local legislators over their reluctance to back a potential state gas tax hike.

Schroer on Monday repeated the message he and Gov. Bill Haslam took across the state last year on a 15-city tour to raise awareness of road funding shortfalls. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is sitting on a $6.1 billion backlog of projects across Tennessee, as well as a $5.3 billion shortfall of money for road projects that have yet to get off the drawing board - 19 of which are in Hamilton County, representing $640 million in investment.

Schroer pointed to the ongoing U.S. 27 widening project downtown, which at $129 million is the largest TDOT project ever let to contract, as an example of what road dollars do.

And the bottleneck-prone Interstate 75 and Interstate 24 split near the Georgia line - "maybe the worst four-lane section we have across the state," he said - is an example of a project that will probably go unfixed for decades when road dollars aren't there.

"We're going to have to have additional dollars," Schroer said.

He pointed to Georgia, which increased its gas tax last year and committed up to $900 million more to transportation funding, and said Tennessee is in danger of falling behind its neighbors if it doesn't act soon.

But the situation isn't desperate yet. Tennessee currently has the third-best roads in the country, at the third-least expense per capita, as rated by some outside sources.

And Haslam announced earlier this month he will not pursue a gas tax hike this legislative session.

Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee, a grass roots group of activists which has lobbied hard against a potential gas tax hike, says a gas tax hike would hurt those who need relief the most, and cheered Haslam's decision as a victory.

Andrew Ogles, in a release earlier this year, said the group will also be ready to oppose a gas tax hike if it comes up later this year.

"We must remain vigilant. This will definitely come back up next year and we need to be engaged," said Ogles.

During his keynote address in Chattanooga on Monday, Schroer alluded to Americans for Prosperity's comments, and said true prosperity is jobs, which rely on roads.

He also said if Chattanooga wants to avoid becoming like Atlanta, residents ought to tell their legislators, because TDOT needs the Legislature's support in coming up with new revenue.

"We don't want to be the next Atlanta," Schroer said. "You know what that means. People avoid Atlanta like the plague."

Schroer also called out Chattanooga's state legislators over their reluctance to back a potential gas tax hike.

"Your elected officials in this area are one of the most reluctant to talk about funding transportation," he said. "I don't know why."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said earlier this year he is against a state gas tax hike, saying "I'm not certain we need it right now," and "the burden of proof ought to be on those who want to spend this money."

State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, also came out against a gas tax hike, saying "it's not a tax that has equity," and "there should be some other way to increase" road funding.

Schroer said Tennesseans should expect some sort of road funding increase proposal in coming months, though he didn't specify what type of a tax or fee could be proposed.

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