Transportation’s Federal Funding Challenges, State Funding Solutions

Sponsored by the CSG Transportation and Infrastructure Public Policy Committee
Friday, Dec. 11, 10 a.m. – Noon, Broadway Ballroom AB, 2nd Floor

When Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer joined Gov. Bill Haslam Nov. 9 for a one-day, five-city trip around the state to highlight Tennessee’s transportation funding challenges, he brought with him two lists. One was a list of 181 backlogged transportation projects totaling more than $6 billion that, at current funding levels, the state won’t be able to complete or get under contract until 2034. The other listed 765 new project needs at a projected cost of $5 billion that the state won’t be able to consider until 2022 at the earliest.

Despite what Schroer says are the importance of many of these projects to safety, congestion and economic development, Tennessee finds itself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to transportation funding. Uncertainty about the federal transportation program—and an inability to do long-term planning as a result—have prompted the state to add to the project backlog in recent years. Tennessee is a non-debt state and so not able to borrow significantly for major projects as many states do. They spend the third least per capita on transportation of all the states. Moreover, the state’s gas tax was last raised in 1989 and, with no adjustment for inflation, it now produces 20 percent less funding in real terms. Haslam has suggested pushing for a gas tax increase in 2016, but many Republican lawmakers are opposed.

If Tennessee were to approve an increase next year, the state would be following in the footsteps of eight states that passed increases in 2015 (Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington). State legislators from seven of those states will participate in a round table discussion as the CSG Transportation and Infrastructure Public Policy Committee convenes at the 2015 CSG National Conference in Nashville, Tenn. Also on the panel will be the chairman of the House Transportation Committee in Delaware, a state that didn’t raise its gas tax but instead raised a number of Department of Motor Vehicle fees and toll rates to produce new transportation revenues.

Listening closely will be Schroer, whose governor would like to see his state move forward on transportation funding next year so that his lists don’t just keep getting longer. He’ll talk about the pitfalls that may lie ahead, the governor’s plan to tackle the project backlog and how the passage of a federal transportation bill might help states like his.