A December poll conducted by Vanderbilt University found a plurality of Tennesseans in support of Gov. Bill Haslam’s long-anticipated proposal for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax.
According to the poll, as many as 65 percent of Tennesseans favor an increase, and 55 percent favor an increase of seven cents per gallon, which is what Haslam has proposed (along with a 12-cent-per-gallon increase on diesel fuel).
But Tennessee is still a red state, with a deeply conservative legislature, and tax increases are never popular in red states or in Republican legislatures. So even though a majority of Tennesseans favor the increased gasoline tax, Haslam’s proposal may not even make it out of committee for a vote of the full General Assembly later this spring.
That would be unfortunate, as it would mean increased funding for Tennessee’s rapidly growing backlog of transportation projects will be pushed back several years. With 2018 being an election year, the issue would not be back before the state legislature until 2019.
By that point, 2019, it will have been a full three decades since Tennessee last increased its gasoline tax. The state’s backlog of transportation projects, which recently surpassed $10 billion, would continue to grow. Much-needed improvements would continue to be cycled to the back burner.
Because Tennessee has a pay-as-you-go model for transportation funding, the state does not incur debt to build roads or bridges. That’s a smart fiscal policy, even if it is unique among states across the nation. It is one of the long-standing fiscal practices that has helped the Volunteer State remain one of just nine states without an income tax.
But it also puts the state’s transportation department in a bind. Needed road improvements can be frustratingly slow to be realized, and no one knows that better than residents of Oneida who have battled the town’s Alberta Street bottleneck during the after-school commute. A bypass or widening of U.S. Hwy. 27 through the bottleneck area from Oak Grove to Verdun has long been discussed, but has yet to come to fruition — even though TDOT admits that it is one of the most pressing roads needs in the region, with a vehicle count that is well over the highway’s capacity.
The reason for the delay is simple: funding. Or, rather, a lack thereof. Tennessee last increased its gas tax in 1989, when the late Gov. Ned Ray McWherter convinced legislators to take up the issue. With improved fuel efficiency standards — especially in the last decade — it has been estimated that the Volunteer State’s current gas tax of 21.4 cents per gallon only has half the purchasing power it had in 1989.
In other words, for every 10 miles of roadway the Tennessee Department of Transportation could afford to pave in 1989, it can pave only five today.
That is a simplistic illustration, perhaps, but it underscores the need to act. In Scott County alone, transportation needs are in excess of $130 million, according to a study conducted last year by the Tennessee Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
Locally, the Alberta Street bottleneck is the most pressing issue involving state roadways, but it is far from the only one. A straightening and widening of U.S. Hwy. 27 from Robbins south into Morgan County has been long-awaited, and widening S.R. 63 from two lanes to four lanes from Huntsville east to the Scott-Campbell county line would be a significant benefit for the thousands of Scott Countians who commute to neighboring counties for work.
An increase in the state’s gas tax would benefit more than just state roads. The Scott County Road Department receives less than $500 in funding from the local tax coffers each year, meaning it is funded almost exclusively by its share of the state gas tax. According to estimates, the proposed tax increase would generate $278 million in new revenue, of which $39 million would go to cities and $78 million would go to counties across the state.
That would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased revenue for Scott County, where extra funding is much needed to repair county-owned roads and bridges.
To help make an increased gas tax more palatable, Haslam has proposed a package of tax cuts, which would shave a half-cent off the state’s tax on groceries, lower the excise and dividends tax on businesses, and accelerate the phasing out of the Hall tax on interest and dividends.
The proposed gas tax increase would cost the average driver less than $2 per week, according to past estimates. That’s a small price to pay for roads that are safer to drive and cause less wear and tear on our vehicles.
At 28 years and counting since Tennessee’s last gas tax increase, it’s an idea whose time has long since come. But it is never too late to act.