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VOL. 130 | NO. 219 | Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Haslam Uses Lamar Backdrop To Make Road Funding Case

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam still thinks it’s too early to talk about how to pay for a $6.1 billion list of 181 state road projects in 62 counties across the state.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, left, and Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer, right, brought their call for better funding of state road projects to the Lamar Avenue freight corridor Monday afternoon in the their second statewide trek on the issue in three months.

(Daily News File/Bill Dries)

But after saying that Monday, Nov. 9, in Memphis, Haslam then made the case for a gas tax hike.

Haslam and transportation commissioner John Schroer completed their second state-long trek in three months to make the case for a change in the status quo of funding road projects.

At the Memphis stop, the next to last in Monday’s set of five, Haslam stood at the edge of the BNSF Railways intermodal yard on Lamar Avenue. Tractor-trailer rigs dominated the midday traffic behind him, and trucks carrying intermodal containers moved in both directions on the city’s major freight corridor.

“Just fixing Lamar Avenue itself is about $270 million,” Haslam said to a group of BNSF executives, local elected leaders and state legislators. “It’s critical for the business along here and for Memphis as a logistics hub that we get it fixed.”

The possibility of a gas tax hike has brought early opposition from Republican leaders in the Tennessee legislature including state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

But Haslam has heard from logistics industry leaders in Memphis and elsewhere who favor the move.

Tennesseans pay 39.8 cents per gallon in gas tax, 21.4 of which goes to the state and 18.4 of which goes to the federal government. The state gas tax rate has remained unchanged for more than 20 years.

“Let’s agree on what the plan is,” Haslam said again Monday when pressed on the gas tax hike possibility. “There’s no use in coming up with the options instead of ‘We are going to need to raise this much in revenue’ – until we agree on what the plan’s going to be. That’s like telling you what the price is before you go shopping. I want to have that conversation first.”

But, armed with a detailed list of delayed road projects, Haslam didn’t steer clear of the tax conversation for long.

“Every truck driver up and down Lamar Avenue or driving down I-40 is paying half as much to do that – to use our roads – as they did 20 years ago,” he said, referring to more fuel-efficient vehicles. “That’s the only tax you can say that of. There’s no other tax you can say it’s half what it was 20 years ago.”

Haslam has rejected the idea of using capital debt to finance road projects, which many other states do. He was a bit warmer to the idea of Tennessee restoring some of the $260 million taken out of the gas tax fund and used to balance the state’s general fund before he became governor.

“I am willing to consider part of that,” Haslam said. “It’s wonderful to say we should spend all our money to do that, but as opposed to other options? There’s a menu of needs the state has.”

Haslam is a year into his second and final term as governor.

And he’s not sure he will present a plan to fund the backlog of road projects when the Tennessee legislature returns to session in January.

“I think it needs to happen while I’m governor because if it doesn’t, the new governor is not necessarily going to want to take that up in their first two years,” he said. “There is no way we can keep going the way we are now for five years. It just won’t work. People will feel it.”

Schroer said the Lamar Avenue project is now in the first phase, which includes right of way acquisition for a system of interchanges between Memphis International Airport and the Mississippi state line.

He estimates half of the total $270 million cost is first buying the land.

“This project is one that is desperately needed for Memphis,” Schroer said of the Lamar corridor. “This project can’t wait until 2024 or 2025 to get completed.”

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