DALLAS — A newly formed coalition of Tennessee transportation organizations and public officials will seek to build support for increased state taxes and fees to help resolve the state's transportation infrastructure woes.
The state is among a number of others, including Michigan, New Jersey, Kentucky, and South Carolina, where concerns over the level of future federal funding has led transportation advocates in and out of government to look at augmenting state revenue sources.
The new Transportation Coalition of Tennessee said the state highway department will need an additional $800 million a year to begin addressing an $8 billion backlog of badly needed road projects.
The new coalition wants "a comprehensive funding solution to maintain and expand Tennessee's critical transportation system," said Susie Alcorn, executive director of the Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance.
The goal is to "increase and reform Tennessee's transportation fees," she said.
Lower gasoline prices are causing more state lawmakers to consider raising gasoline taxes to fund their road projects, said Joshua Schank, president of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation.
"It's not surprising we are seeing the discussion about gasoline taxes in Tennessee and other states," Schank said. "States have been looking at potential new revenue sources for some time as Congress doesn't seem able to act. With the price of gasoline going down, this is the perfect time to do it."
Alcorn said the transportation coalition's steering committee includes representatives from the infrastructure group as well as the Tennessee Trucking Association, the Tennessee Municipal League, a county highway officials group, and Tennessee Public Transit Association.
"Business leaders, economic development professionals and elected officials see the growing shortfall as a potential hindrance to future economic development in Tennessee," Alcorn said.
The coalition did not specify which taxes and fees should be increased or by how much, but noted that not raising the state gasoline tax for 25 years has resulted in a massive backlog of planned improvements.
"We hope interested parties will join the transportation coalition to add their expertise and insights as to the best way to move forward to address this issue," Alcorn said. Without more revenue, the Tennessee DOT will be limited to maintaining existing roads with no ability to fund new construction, said Bill Moore, chairman of the infrastructure alliance.
"A maintenance-only budget means no new roads and no new transportation options," Moore said.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is looking for a comprehensive transportation plan that goes beyond a short-term fix, said spokesman David Smith.
"The governor has said transportation funding will be something we'll have to address at some point," Smith said. "Due to fewer federal dollars and increasingly fuel efficient vehicles, among other factors, we have a backlog of transportation projects and maintenance needs, and we'll have ongoing needs that will have to be addressed."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said last month that the fall in gasoline prices may make it easier to pass the state's first gasoline tax increase in 25 years but only if it is part of a comprehensive funding package.
"I am not in favor of just raising just the gas tax," Ramsey told reporters in mid-December. "That does not solve our problem. I'm looking for a long-term solution."
The Tennessee Department of Transportation's total state revenues of $826.6 million in fiscal 2014 included $393 million from the gasoline tax. The state gasoline tax of 21.4 cents per gallon brings in $658 million a year, but $242 million is distributed to cities and counties and $22 million goes into the general fund.
State Transportation Commissioner John Schroer told a legislative committee in November that $400 million of road and bridge projects would be delayed until fiscal 2016 over federal funding uncertainties.
"Federal funding continues to flow sluggishly," Schroer said. "Because we do not have a full fiscal year's funding, the department has had to scale back on future contracts."