Governor Bill Haslam says there’s no way around hiking the state’s gas tax some time in the future. The tax, which hasn’t increased since 1989, is not keeping up with the rising cost of building and maintaining Tennessee’s roads and bridges.
Improved fuel efficiency standards and the rise of hybrid and electric cars are a boon to the environment, but the governor says they hurt gas taxes. What’s more, Haslam says federal transportation funding is always uncertain, noting that Congress’ temporary fixes on the federal highway fund make it tricky to plan long-term projects.
Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer echoed the worry over the unpredictability of federal support, calling the situation “disconcerting” during TDOT’s budget meeting on Wednesday.
Coupled with less-than-stellar state gas tax revenue, Schroer says TDOT is focusing almost exclusively on maintenance, instead of expanding the state’s road infrastructure.
Looking head, Haslam said it’s possible that his office, or the legislature, could propose a gas tax hike. The governor said it’s too soon to say who will move first. Indeed, he was a bit more equivocal in his wording.
“There’s no way the state can continue on the path we’re on now. The math just doesn’t work,” Haslam said. “I’m not saying we’re going to ask the legislature to do it, or they’re going to ask us. We’re evaluating the needs, and is this the right time to do that or not … we obviously don’t want to do that until we have to.”
Tennessee’s transportation funding looks rosier than some other states that have leveraged debt to maintain state roads, Haslam said. “We have a very good road system. It’s well-maintained and it’s paid for. So we don’t feel the pain that other people do. But that pain is coming to us and we shouldn’t kid ourselves.”
Every additional gas tax cent increase generates 18 million a year for TDOT, which has an annual budget of nearly $2 billion.