Haslam to begin pushing lawmakers for transportation funding increases

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/24/16. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam speaks during the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting on Wednesday, August 24, 2016.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday he plans to rev up his effort and press state lawmakers for additional transportation funding next year, although the Republican continues to resist acknowledging it would likely require a fuel tax increase.

"What we've been doing so far is saying what are the needs, what will that cost us and let's figure out different ways that we might pay for that," Haslam told reporters. "And now it's time to begin having those conversations again with legislators."

He added "there's no way on something this hard and big you do it without support of the legislators, so we're going to begin those conversations."

Haslam and Transportation Commissioner John Schroer estimate Tennessee has a $6 billion backlog on previously approved projects with billions of dollars more in various transportation needs that have yet to get off the drawing board and be placed on an already very long line for inclusion.

Addressing the Nashville Rotary Club, Haslam said the state must devise a plan that helps both urban communities like Chattanooga as well as the large swath of rural counties elsewhere across Tennessee.

"Whether you live in downtown Nashville or you live in Pulaski, we have to have a plan that works for all of those," he said, adding that the "challenging piece of that is obviously how are you going to pay for it."

The state's transportation system is now user pay with gas and diesel taxes paid by in-state and out-of-state people and businesses. Tennessee hasn't raised gas or diesel prices at the pump for more than a quarter century, with the last increase coming in 1989.

Each penny of the gas tax raises 21.4 cents per gallon. Diesel is 17 cents per gallon.

Chattanooga and other parts of Southeast Tennessee have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of road needs. And Haslam noted the traffic-plagued greater Nashville area has needs of $6 billion over the next quarter of a century.

"Even if you look at what we bring in new-money wise, it's not going to make a huge dent" in Nashville, Haslam told the crowd. "So there's going to have to be a wide variety of solutions."

In the fall of 2015, Haslam toured areas of the state, including Chattanooga, trying to emphasize needs, saying although there is no immediate crisis, his desire is to address a looming future problem now instead of allowing the current road system to deteroriate.

But lawmakers weren't ready to take a ride on any proposal in an election year, and it remains unclear whether they will now that the elections are over.

Tennessee pays for roads in cash and does not issue bonds like many states.

Haslam, meanwhile, is still making the argument it would be better to deal with the issue now than leave it to confront his successor in 2019.

"Sooner rather than later is better when you have a governor in the last two years of his term rather than someone coming in new," Haslam said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.