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Gerald McCormick speaks in this file photo.

Hamilton County Road Projects

Advocates of more funding for Tennessee transportation say the state has a backlog of at least $6 billion in transportation needs. That includes some $423 million for these seven projects in Hamilton County alone:

* I-124: North of I-24 to south of Tennessee River Bridge, including the Olgiati Bridge (additional lanes), $25 million

* I-24: Widening of I-24 to six lanes from I-59 to US-27, $217.8 million

* I-75: Interchange at I-24, $65 million

* SR-111: State Highway 111 Bridge over SR-29, $3.6 million

* SR-2: US-27 (bridges over Chattanooga Creek and Ravine-Lookout Mountain), $5 million

* SR-29: US-27 Bridge over Big Soddy Creek, $9.4 million

* SR-317: Widening of SR-317 (Chattanooga, Collegedale, points east): $89.4 million

Source: Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee transportation advocates have their work cut out when it comes to persuading state lawmakers from Chattanooga to back any boost in state fuel taxes that proponents call critical to funding ever-increasing local and state infrastructure needs.

"The burden of proof is on the people who want a gas tax," House Majority Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said. "I don't see a lot of support for it from everyday people I run into."

McCormick is willing to let proponents make their case for more funding, "but," he added, "I'd be strongly leaning against a gas tax increase."

His comments were largely echoed by other members of the Hamilton County legislative delegation who met this week with Times Free Press reporters and editors.

Noting that fuel taxes also go to fund bike paths, walking trails and sidewalks, Gardenhire said, "I would like to see us focus on what really needs to be done.

"All those are nice, warm and fuzzy projects," Gardenhire added. "But is that what the road tax is really for?"

The community has "some major projects that need to be funded," Gardenhire added, citing the expansion from four to six lanes of I-24 -- an estimated $217.8 million project -- beginning near its junction with I-59 near the Georgia border and coming east around Lookout Mountain before heading into Chattanooga.

"I think people would be more willing to support" projects like that, Gardenhire said before again referencing projects like bike paths, walking trails and sidewalks. "Not that any of them are bad," he said. "But we need to focus the resources."

It's been a quarter century since the state last raised its tax on diesel fuel and 26 years since the gas tax was increased. Motorists currently pay taxes of 21.4 cents per gallon on gas and 18.4 cents on diesel fuel, which is combined with federal fuel taxes of 18.4 cents and 24.4 cents, respectively.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said something needs to be done about funding. But he balked this year at offering any plan or bill, saying the state must first compile a list of what additional money would bring in terms of completed priorities.

The governor's own transportation commissioner, John Schroerer, has said Tennessee will soon be faced with spending most available revenue on road maintenance, not new projects. The state's dedicated transportation fund also derives some of its funding from vehicle registrations.

The recently created Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance, an advocacy group comprised of businesses, local government organizations and the motorist-advocate AAA, argues Tennessee is in the midst of a transportation infrastructure crisis with a $6 billion backlog of already-committed projects officials can't get to.

Among them are seven projects in and around Hamilton County totaling $423.7 million.

More than half of that would be gobbled up by the proposed expansion of I-24 near its juncture with I-59.

Lack of funding threatens both driver safety and the state's economic competitiveness, said the Infrastructure Alliance, whose members also include the Tennessee Road Builders Association, Tennessee Truckers Association, Tennessee Municipal League and Tennessee County Highway Officials Association.

Ideas floated in recent years for new revenues include fuel tax per-gallon increases, applying the state's sales tax to fuel purchases like Georgia does, increasing vehicle registration fees as well as distance mileage charges for tractor-trailer trucks and cars.

During local lawmakers' discussions with the Times Free Press on Tuesday, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he's heard complaints that transportation is underfunded since first being elected to the General Assembly in 2004.

The problem, he said, is "really not so much about the gas tax. It's about the other things crowding out the ability to fund the infrastructure. Everybody always views every problem as a revenue problem and it's not necessarily a revenue problem. It's where you're choosing to allocate."

Noting the state's recently enacted 2015-2016 budget stands at $33.8 billion, Watson said that provides funding for everything from public K-12 education to TennCare as well as roads, he noted. Education and health spending account for over half, he said.

"It's where we are choosing to allocate" resources, Watson said.

For decades, Tennessee transportation funding has always come from dedicated sources -- the fuel taxes.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said she agreed with McCormick that the "burden of proof" is on advocates. Elected to the House last year, Hazlewood said her appointment to the House Finance Committee was an eye-opening experience on how spending is restricted.

"We have this $33 billion budget that is ... already spoken for," she said. "Again, I think we're going to have to give a really hard look at how money is spent."

A new poll by Vanderbilt University indicates Haslam could face a tough time building support for any gas tax increase in Tennessee. Just 25 percent said they would support that while 46 percent said they would oppose an increase.

"I think any poll that talks about increasing taxes is going to show fairly low approvals except for a cigarette tax," Haslam recently told reporters. "I think that part of what we're going to spend time" on prior to proposing anything is "just help quantifying what the need is. Here's what the cost will be. And we'll make certain with the legislature that this is something we're going to do together."

McCormick said, "I want to look and see what they want to do with the money. I've heard a lot of bragging about how we have the best infrastructure in the nation on one hand, then on the other hand road contractors come to me and say we have a $6 billion deficit."

He said the governor "has not approached me about proposing" an increase. "I'd expect him to ask me to carry it since I carry all the rest of the [administration's] bills -- good, bad and ugly."