Paying $4 for a gallon of gas is hurting Tennesseans’ wallets but might be helping make toll roads a more politically feasible option in the state.
Since 1989, Tennessee drivers have been paying 21.4 cents a gallon in gasoline taxes, most of which goes toward road construction. But with the remarkable rise in gas prices, however, political will to raise the gas tax will be tough to muster, officials recognize.
However, toll roads may not be so tough.
Asphalt and other construction-related costs are skyrocketing while gas taxes and federal revenues are essentially flat in recent years, said Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely.
The answers the Bredesen administration and the state Legislature are looking to are alternative road financing methods, which squarely focus on toll roads.
“I personally think toll roads have a future in the Tennessee transportation system,” Bredesen said. “We’re all struggling for alternative ways and better ways to finance road construction. It’s awful hard to justify — with today’s fuel prices — putting an additional tax on gasoline.”
While the political will to raise the gas tax may be further diminishing each day the price of oil rises, gauging the public’s support for toll roads is anything but clear.
And evident public support from the affected areas for a tolled project is necessary before TDOT would proceed with its first tolled project, Nicely said.
Time is ticking away to gain that public support as TDOT is supposed to recommend a toll bridge and a toll road project to the General Assembly by January 2009. Public meetings are being held in the next few months to gauge interest.
Tennessee created a pilot project for toll roads in 2007, after the state’s tolling authority expired in 2002.
Tolling projects can only go toward new construction and isn’t being considered for existing roads.
“It’s still very much at the early stage, but I do think we’re coming to the realization that we’ve got to look at some alternative ways to do things,” Nicely said. “Let me hasten to add that this is not a magic bullet. Tolling is not going to solve our long-term financing need for transportation, but it is in certain specific instances we think it might be appropriate.”
Sumner-Davidson connector in doubt?
Currently, TDOT is considering two new toll roads and six potential toll bridges. The Hadley Bend Connector between Sumner and Davidson counties is receiving the most discussion.
Geographic lines between Davidson and Sumner counties, however, are dividing public support for the Hadley Bend Bridge, estimated to cost at least $300 million.
Sen. Diane Black (R-Gallatin), a proponent of the toll bridge, said her Sumner County constituents want the project built so they can have a more direct commute to Nashville, especially since “I-65 is at capacity.”
“The road would be a tremendous asset to Sumner County, and there are also benefits for the folks on the other side in Davidson County,” Black said, adding that there has been “a lot of opposition on the other side of the lake.”
Rep. Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory) has heard that opposition, and as a result simply says the toll bridge between Sumner and Davidson counties is “not going to happen.”
Turner represents the vast majority of where the Hadley Bend toll bridge would connect to Davidson County, and Turner said his constituents don’t see how they’ll benefit from the bridge being built.
“We don’t need to pay for them to get to the airport quicker,” Turner said of Sumner County residents. “We figure they can move back to Davidson County. That’s kind of the feeling that people have got out there.”
So far, two public meetings have been held on the potential toll bridge project and one more has yet to be scheduled for Sumner County.
Besides the Hadley Bend bridge, the other seven potential toll projects TDOT is considering include two toll bridges over the Mississippi River, a Tennessee River bridge between Benton and Houston counties, one over the same river in Hamilton County as well as a toll road in Knoxville.
In January, TDOT is supposed to present a possible toll road and toll bridge to the state Legislature, but Nicely said finding an appropriate road project, which is more complicated, doesn’t look likely.
“We might be ready with a bridge project by January,” Nicely said. “Given what I’ve seen so far, I’ve got my doubts we’ll be ready to go forward with a roadway project by January.”
Road funding change
Tennessee building one toll road or bridge would be a dramatic change in how it’s financed road construction historically.
The state is basically a pay-as-you-go one, does not bond road projects and has no highway debt.
“It’s served us very well,” Nicely said of the current financing system. “There’s no question. With the problems we have, we still are relatively better positioned than most states because our roads are in pretty good shape No. 1. No 2, we have no debt. Most of our budget is not being consumed by debt service.”
Despite those benefits, Nicely notes that toll projects have advantages in the fact they can be built more quickly because they are bonded and larger construction can be more easily afforded.