TDOT commissioner: Tennessee facing new taxing method or deteriorating roads

By Don Jacobs

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee must revise the way it funds transportation, possibly with a usage fee, or face massive deterioration of its infrastructure, Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John

"We get paid by the gallons of fuel people burn and they’ve been burning less,” told the members of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization.

"We have to have some sort of usage fee using how many miles you travel and how much does your vehicle weigh.”

Schroer said cars can travel on roads constantly and do no damage. Commercial rigs, he said, cause all the damage to the road surface.

Schroer’s visit was prompted by the prospect of the national Highway Trust Fund going broke in late August or September.

With about half of the state’s transportation budget funded by money from the Highway Trust Fund, Tennessee is facing a bleak future on new road projects.

“We are at a critical point in federal transportation funding, and without action there will be major impacts to Tennessee Department of Transportation programs,” Schroer said earlier in April.

“We would be forced to develop an alternate program that reflects the loss of federal dollars and focuses exclusively on the maintenance of our existing pavement and bridges rather than new projects.”

Schroer said other states have opted to make transportation funding a priority and have devised various ways to pump more state dollars into roads. He said in Florida the state provides 70 percent of transportation funding, with the rest coming from the Highway Trust Fund.

The Highway Trust Fund collects about $34 billion annually from federal fuel taxes. The federal tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon, the same amount set by former President Bill Clinton in 1993.

The tax per gallon dropped to 18.3 cents in 1996, but returned to 18.4 cents per gallon in 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation website.

By law, 4.3 cents of the federal gasoline tax goes back into the nation’s general fund, leaving the balance for transportation.

In the 2013-14 fiscal year, $9.7 billion was transferred from the general fund to the Trust Fund. Despite that help, however, expenses have been exceeding revenues.

Absent the political will to raise fuel taxes, President Barack Obama has proposed a four-year, $302 billion plan to supplement the Trust Fund with savings from proposed changes in corporate tax laws.

Jeff Welch, executive director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, couldn’t begin to speculate on the ramifications if federal lawmakers don’t arrive at a funding agreement for the Trust Fund.

“It’s too difficult to speculate on,” Welch said. “Nothing is going to be shut down, but we won’t be awarding any new projects.”

Typically, federal funding pays 80 percent of large road projects, with the state and local governments picking up the rest of the tab.

Welch wasn’t able to say how a lack of federal funding would impact the area’s three-year plan, which includes projects such as widening Alcoa Highway, widening Hall Road in Blount County and a new interchange for Interstate 640 and North Broadway.

More in Thursday’s News Sentinel.