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Snarled traffic sits on Interstate 24 in Chattanooga. Gov. Bill Haslam is planning a statewide tour starting next week to build support for extra funding for state highway projects.
We have no transportation debt, and we do a great job maintaining our roads, but we know we have challenges on the horizon.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam next week will launch a six-week state tour in his quest to get more money for Tennessee's growing transportation and infrastructure needs in areas ranging from road capacity to safety.

The 15-city tour starts Aug. 5 in Memphis. Other stops in coming weeks will include Chattanooga and Cleveland as the governor seeks to convince the public and fellow Republicans in the Legislature that more funding is necessary.

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Republican Gov. Bill Haslam

"Tennessee's transportation and infrastructure system always ranks at or near the top when compared to the rest of the country," Haslam said in a news release. "We have no transportation debt, and we do a great job maintaining our roads, but we know we have challenges on the horizon."

Transportation Commissioner John Schroer will join Haslam to explain needs relating to functionality and capacity of state roads and highways, safety issues around roads and bridges, and the impact infrastructure has on economic development efforts statewide.

"We know that we can't depend on the federal government to be the funding partner that it once was," Haslam said. "We also know that as our infrastructure ages, maintenance becomes more important and more expensive. And we know that maintaining our roads is only part of the equation."

For years, Congress has struggled over coming up with its share of transportation funding.

The governor said that "right now we have a multibillion-dollar backlog of highway projects across this state that address key access, safety and economic development issues and that's only going to grow."

That includes an estimated $400 million of projects in Hamilton County alone.

A number of states, including Georgia, have addressed funding issues by raising fuel taxes, fees or both.

Haslam's first pitch will be to the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce.

His push for more revenue — it's been 25 years since Tennessee's gas tax was raised — is already being opposed by the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which plans its own road show. Last session, the same group successfully opposed Haslam's Medicaid expansion plan, Insure Tennessee, in the state Legislature.

A number of Haslam's fellow Republicans, including top leaders, appear nervous. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he expected there would be conversation about using bonds for new road needs. Two Republican senators immediately rejected that, noting Tennessee has always paid cash for transportation projects.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, recently floated a plan to use about $400 million from a projected $500 million state budget surplus for roads. But that wouldn't even cover the costs of projects on the list of improvements for Hamilton County highways, such as widening portions of Interstate 24.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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