As Tennessee lawmakers debate how to fund a $10 billion backlog in road projects, a recent report has concluded that the state's roads have not improved in overall quality in eight years.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave Tennessee’s roads a grade of C, the same as it did eight years ago, long before Gov. Bill Haslam laid out his broad plan to catch up on nearly 1,000 outdated road and bridge projects around the state. ASCE released its national report card for roads last week, which grades the nation's roads at a D+.
In total, 11 percent of Tennessee's locally maintained and state-maintained roads are labeled either "poor" or "very poor" condition; 29 percent are in "fair" condition; and the remaining 60 percent are considered "good" or "very good" condition."
Although current conditions are good, the report suggests the future of state roads is suspect, as unprecedented growth around the state has placed a greater strain on them.
The report estimates that the Tennessee Department of Transportation will fall nearly $3 billion short of projected needs over the next 10 years, or about $291 million annually.
“In fact, it was estimated that approximately $475 million would be needed annually to keep up the current state of good repair on state-maintained roadways as measured by the (percent quality index),” the report says. The percent quality index blends distress and road quality into a 5-point scale.
Haslam’s plan to raise the tax on gasoline and diesel by 7 cents and 12 cents, respectively, would add about $278 million annually to the state’s transportation fund. Haslam’s plan also would create a law against an open container of alcohol in vehicles, which could bring in an additional $18 million in federal funding the state doesn’t currently get.
A counter proposal from Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, would avoid any tax increase, but would also divert money from the state's sales tax to transportation. His plan, which has been well-received from more hard-line conservatives and Tea Party-aligned Republicans, would send an estimated $291 million in revenue for road projects, the same projected shortfall outlined by the ASCE report.
Haslam's plan would only fund state-maintained roads, but infrastructure needs are a concern within the city of Knoxville, too.
So far in 2017, Knoxville's 311 call center has received more than 100 pothole complaints. In the last year, more than 420 pothole complaints have filed in.
"This time of year, we get a lot of issues," said city of Knoxville construction manager Josh Roberts. "It's been a mild winter, but after we've put down salt and brine in the winter and with snowstorms, that takes its toll."
While legislators work out the kinks to the state's transportation needs, Knoxville crews aim to respond to any pothole complaints on city roads within 48 hours of receiving a 311 call.
MORE ON THE GAS TAX DEBATE
ASCE’s report says Tennessee is one of just a few states that are more dependent on the federal highway trust fund, which has become insolvent, because of its pay-as-you-go strategy to maintain roads. That strategy allows the state to avoid incurring debt, but it also forces the state to face its challenges in growth and flat budgeting head-on.
“It is time to increase the gas tax, which was last raised in 1989,” ASCE recommends in its report, which points to a 7-cent difference between the state’s gas tax and national average.
READ THE FULL REPORT CARD BELOW
At the capitol
ASCE officials spoke to the Senate Transportation Committee last month, and the recommendations in ASCE’s report card in many ways mirror what Haslam and Hawk have laid out, and what the Senate, at least, seems to generally support.
ASCE has not met individually with lawmakers, but has reached out to the House to make a similar presentation, said Becky Moylan, public relations manager for state projects.
Hawk chuckled when he heard about the match between his revenue plan and the ASCE’s projected budget shortfall. He said in developing his plan, he worked only with legislative assistants and budget experts at the Capitol, and no one outside state government.
“I literally just pulled a number I thought we all could live with,” he said.
ASCE recommends “sustained investment,” “bold leadership” and preparing for the future to raise grades. Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the report is another reason the state needs to act.
"The ASCE Report Card for Tennessee … further shows the importance of passing a fiscally responsible plan to provide a safe and reliable transportation network that remains debt-free for the next generation of Tennesseans,” she said.
But House Republicans have been less receptive to Haslam’s plan — which includes other off-setting measures, including tax reductions, not related to road funding —because they have said it’s not truly budget-neutral. Some estimates from opponents say it will generate $395 million in revenue through tax increases and only offset $270 million in cuts.
The House has been clearly divided, most visibly in the transportation subcommittee that took two weeks to decide the fate of Haslam’s plan. Even more questions from House members came in the full transportation committee about what exactly they were voting for.
So far, House lawmakers have revised Haslam’s plan several times.
Senators have been more receptive so far to Haslam's plan.
Jake Lowary covers Tennessee politics and state government for the USA Today Network. Reach him at 615-881-7039 or follow him on Twitter @JakeLowary.