Tennessee's transportation network consistently ranks as one of the best in the nation and is the only one topping the list with no debt. Gov. Bill Haslam believes, however, the same may not be said in the future if changes aren't made soon, with fuel efficiency continuing to improve and construction and labor costs steadily rising.
"More efficient cars means better fuel economy. That's great news… but the reality is that we pay for our roads and bridges on a cents per gallon basis… It's the only tax really that is going down and continues to go down as we get better mileage… It's a difficult situation for us and local officials because as we get less money in, roads are costing two to three times probably more to maintain than they did 20 years ago. So that's the issue we're here to talk about."
Haslam and Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer sat down with local and state officials in Crossville Aug. 24 to discuss the region’s transportation and infrastructure needs. Local officials attending the meeting were James Mayberry, Crossville mayor; Kenneth Carey Jr., Cumberland County mayor; Brad Allamong, president and CEO of the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce; David Rutherford, Crossville city manager; Scott Blaylock, county road superintendent; and state Rep. Cameron Sexton. Other attendees included representatives and officials from surrounding counties.
In a morning meeting at the Art Circle Public Library, they discussed the functionality and capacity of Tennessee’s state roads and highways, safety issues around roads and bridges and the impact infrastructure has on economic development efforts in urban and rural communities. Motivation to hold such a meeting came from a Tennessee comptroller’s report on transportation funding released earlier this year. It stated that TDOT's revenues, which consists primarily of state and federal gas taxes, are not expected to be sufficient to maintain current infrastructure.
"What we're not here today to talk about is a specific solution to that," said Haslam. "It's really important to me that we have a conversation around this state about what the need is before we start talking about what exactly we're going to do."
"The purpose this morning is to have a discussion," he later added. "We have some ideas of what the needs are in this region. I know you do as well, but we want to have that discussion to understand better what you think the needs are and what you think we should be prioritizing so we'll end up there."
Before discussion, TDOT staff presented the cost of several projects in the region, such as two Hwy. 127 widening projects in Fentress County and a widening project on Rt. 136 in Putnam County. The total estimated cost of completion for both of these projects is $124.1 million.
Locally, they included four widening projects in various stages of development on Hwy. 127 in Cumberland and Fentress counties between I-40 and Rt. 62. These improvements total nearly 15 miles of roadway expansion, with an estimated cost of completion at $135.1 million. Also mentioned were two projects on the Northwest Connector that are in development. Project 1 is from Hwy. 70 N to Hwy. 127. Project 2 is from Hwy. 127 N to Rt. 298. The estimated cost of completion is $18 million.
In addition to projects in development, TDOT stressed that several projects that have been given approval are still awaiting funding for completion. Combined, they add up to $6 billion.
"And we're not even thinking about building new stuff… For the last two years, we've essentially had no new projects added to the list. We're busy maintaining bridges and pavements and the dollars aren't available to do new work," said Paul Degges, TDOT deputy commissioner/chief engineer.
Cumberland County Road Superintendent Scott Blaylock commented on the drastic changes in prices of materials as a major problem.
"To resurface a mile a road today…you're looking at 90 to 93,000 [dollars] a mile,"
"And 20 to 25 years ago, it would have been what?" asked Haslam.
"In my opinion you could have done it for 40 to 50,000 easily," Blaylock stated. "
Several at the meeting shared concerns about little or no progression in projects in their areas and about opening "up the arteries in more rural areas in Tennessee," as Don Edwards, Morgan County county executive, put it.
"It boils down to funding, and I understand that, but we want to make sure you don't forget about us little folks," he said.
"There's not a chance we'll forget about you," said Schorer, who went on to say, "And I will tell all of you that making sure what's important to you all is important to us as well. We want to partner with you…and hear your wants, wishes and needs."
With the state's budget surplus in mind, some questioned if it, or at least a portion of it, could be designated for the rural communities' transportation budgets.
"There are a lot of things raising their hands for that money…," said Haslam. He later added, "It's not even a Band-Aid… It doesn't even begin to touch it… We're going to have a couple hundred million or something. So it will help, but it's not really our answer."
"We can all agree that we know what the issue is — the miles per gallon, wear and tear and the revenue going down. How you get to the solution is going to be the disagreement," said Sexton.
Sexton mentioned there's a "perception issue," where many of his constituents believe projects are not being prioritized or others are being constructed that aren't truly needed. He also wondered if raising the revenue "by a certain degree" will maintain projects longterm as fuel efficiency improves.
"I can't comment on 10 years ago, 20 years ago, but I can tell you we really are going to make certain if we do something it's equitable across the state," Haslam responded. "We're addressing particular needs and some of the rural things you've mentioned. Nothing is decided by political reasons, only by need."
Ron Travis, state rep. of District 31, asked if Haslam could give them an estimated "number of tax needed" to alleviate the problem.
Haslam replied, " We're not dodging that question, but I think Rep. Sexton said it very well. This is an issue, a big issue that's not going away. What we're trying to do in these conversations is to come back with a real sense of… what the need is and we're going to come back and say what we propose to do about that. Again, we're not ducking it. Let's have a really good discussion on the need first without getting distracted with that conversation."
This was the tenth stop of Haslam's 15-city tour. In addition to Crossville, Haslam has held transportation and infrastructure discussions in Memphis, Clarksville, Jackson, Nashville, Franklin, Kingsport, Greeneville, Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, and he is making plans to visit Chattanooga, Cleveland, Lenoir City, Knoxville and Union City.
"We're going to finish this up in a couple of weeks, and we'll come back and talk about what the possible solutions might be and then sometime this fall we'll propose a solution with what we think is the right kind to address it," said Haslam.
"Anything will have to go before the General Assembly when their session starts next January," he concluded.