Haslam warns of years-long delays in needed road projects without gas tax hike

Gov. Bill Haslam discusses the state budget at a Times Free Press editorial board.

NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam warned Wednesday that work on some future Tennessee road projects could be a decade or more away if lawmakers reject his proposed gas tax to inject new energy into state transportation spending.

The governor acknowledged in response to reporters' questions that some lawmakers may not see the urgency of acting now on the first recommended gas-and-diesel tax increase since 1989 because of a belief the projects will eventually get done.

Haslam unveiled the $10.5 billion transportation plan last week. The 962-project list includes $6 billion in previously approved projects, a number of which are years from being completed under current funding.

Another $4.5 billion are projects the state sees as necessary for future needs and economic development that can't even get on the officially approved list any time soon.

If lawmakers don't act, "I can say this, it won't happen for a long time," the governor said of projects after an education event in Murfreesboro. "It'll happen at some point, but it'll be about 10 or 15 years later than you want. That's the bottom line."

Among the projects in the $4.5 billion previously unapproved road list is the proposed $171.55 million, 10.3-mile widening of Interstate 24 from I-59 at the Georgia border eastward into Chattanooga. The plan calls for changing the interstate to three lanes.

Haslam has pledged that 94 percent of the state's backlog will be under construction within six years with 56 percent of the interstate projects. There are 45 interstate projects across the state, and the local list includes a massive overhaul of the I-24/I-75 interchange in Brainerd and East Ridge.

A number of lawmakers in the Republican-run General Assembly aren't exactly tooting their horns at the prospect of fuel tax increases and other fees and taxes through which Haslam is proposing to raise $278 million more for Tennessee transportation.

Haslam is proposing raising the gas tax by 7 cents to 28.4 cents per gallon and the diesel levy by 12 cents to 30.4 cents per gallon.

Cities and counties also get a share of fuel taxes. Under the existing split, cities would see an additional $39 million annually, while counties would get $78 million.

As for lawmakers' thinking the projects eventually will be done, the governor said "there might be that [sentiment] because we haven't felt the pain yet."

But Haslam said "the reality is that we're living off of a really good transportation system that's the result of decisions made from people who came before us that made calls.

"If the people in the late '80s hadn't made hard calls, we wouldn't have growth," the governor added, citing various projects completed under the 1989 gas tax increases that eased congestion, promoted economic development and helped fuel Tennessee as a home for any number of major truck or other transportation companies, including several in Chattanooga.

Haslam's proposal has run into problems because of huge surpluses in other taxes that fuel general government needs such as education, health care, state mental health institutions and prisons to house felons. A number of lawmakers want to devote some of the bonanza to roads.

Americans for Prosperity's Tennessee chapter is already criticizing the gas tax increase.

The governor has agreed to cut those general fund taxes by $270 million in areas like the sales tax on food to ease what lawmakers say will be confusion among taxpayers about boosting fuel taxes while other revenues boom.

He has noted that Tennessee roads have been funded with a stand-alone "user fee" - gas and diesel taxes - since 1924.

The governor also said lawmakers ought to be making the case that continued progress on transportation is key to the state's future progress.

"Decisions aren't always easy, but we should do what people before us did and come up with a responsible answer," he said.

Meanwhile, the American Trucking Research Institute's just-released report on the nation's top 100 traffic bottlenecks lists three Nashville interstate sites and one in Memphis among the 50 worst in the U.S.

Also, the Haslam administration recently submitted a seven-item list of priority state road projects totaling $1.16 billion for Republican President Donald Trump's administration to consider.

Tennessee is among states that have offered up such lists of "shovel ready" but unfunded projects to the National Governors Association at the request of Trump's then-transition team.

The Volunteer State list includes a stretch of U.S. 127 in Cumberland and Fentress counties north of Chattanooga.

Trump's request didn't seek cost estimates, but figures provided Wednesday by the Haslam officials to the Times Free Press show a price tag on the planned improvements of the highway and bridges is projected at $159.4 million.

While Trump campaigned on boosting transportation and other infrastructure by up to $1 trillion, he's also spoken out about achieving that through private-sector funding, which suggests approaches like tollways.

It's unclear what he will propose. Congressional Republicans have maintained there should be cuts in other areas to offset any increase in taxes if that is proposed.

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