Stand Up for Tennessee Infrastructure 

Why is Governor Haslam so afraid to ask for a gasoline tax?

click to enlarge BRANDON DILL
  • Brandon Dill

It wasn't that long ago that Governor Bill Haslam and his transportation commissioner, John Schroer, were in Memphis as part of a statewide tour to pitch what had to have been the softest soft-sell of all time. Here, as

elsewhere in Tennessee, the two state officials met with local business, civic, and political leaders in an effort to dramatize a dire picture of infrastructure needs and the near-catastrophe that would confront the state if these needs could not be met in the near future.

That was in July. Haslam and Schroer made it clear then that the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) was looking at a $6 billion backlog of necessary highway and bridge construction — $150 million of which was needed here in Shelby County — and that there simply was no available revenue to build even a few dollars' worth of it.

Not long before this tour, there had been some preliminary talk in administration circles of asking the legislature for a modest gasoline tax to finance some of the most drastic needs, but that idea was shortly deep-sixed by the usual suspects — i.e., those mossbacks in the General Assembly who evidently think infrastructure repairs get made by themselves at no cost to anybody.

After the debacle suffered by the administration in failing to get the legislature to approve Insure Tennessee, a Medicaid-expansion package that would actually have brought some $1.4 billion in federal funding to Tennessee, the governor evidently hadn't the heart for asking the state's smug solons to pass a tax to pay for something.

The idea of that earlier tour was to go around the state to describe in the most dramatic terms how unsustainable the state's infrastructure situation would become unless some new funding could be found. But no request was made for any specific form of revenue at any of the local stops made by Haslam and Schroer. What the administration evidently hoped for was that distressed locals would petition the state for a new highway tax without anybody in state government having to ask for it. Needless to say, in the three months since there have been no such petitions presented.

Schroer was back in Memphis on Tuesday, telling a luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of Memphis that the state's infrastructure situation was unsustainable under current funding circumstances. Things had meanwhile been made even worse by the impact of a reduction, late in this year's legislation session, of the portion of state transportation tax that FedEx had been paying.

Things were so bad, Schroer said, that "we can't survive with everybody in Tennessee driving their car to work."

Why not ask for a state gasoline tax then? Or at least open a dialogue about it?

"That would be ill-advised," Schroer said.

Really? What is ill-advised is the state bumbling on toward a future of infrastructure shut-downs and break-downs without specifying a remedy for the funding shortage and making a case for it.

Even toddlers know that the Tooth Fairy doesn't leave anything under the pillow without getting some sort of signal from somebody.

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