Tennessee may consider toll roads

Monday, June 9, 2008 at 3:33am
Toll booths could become fixtures in Tennessee as rising gas prices are making tolling concepts more politically feasible. Courtesy of EZpass.com

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.

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By: eastnashville37207 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Now with the soaring gas prices I think it's only appropriate for the state to dig just a little bit further in our pockets.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

This has been tried and failed in other States because of a non- competitive clause that was put in the contract. When the cities/states needed new roads they had to "buy out" that clause for higher then the origional cost of the toll roads wasting taxpayer money while still keeping the toll roads.One thing we can be assured of is that if Brede$en is involved it won't turn out as planed and the taxpayers will take a beating. Not one of his "plans" were a plus for the taxpayers in general.Listen to his mocking quote that runs on WTN about takeing/taxing money away from the taxpayers and how happy they are when you Give some of it Back".Enough of elitists politicians in general and dems in specific rapeing us. We are in the energy position we are now in because of their oposition to what amounted to common sense, preparing for increased demand in all forms of energy and now talking about a magic soulution rather then exploiting what we have available NOW prematurely creating a crisis that threatens our economy and our way of life. Meanwhile China is building and doing all that they are preventing us from doing and have 10 times our population along with India another country we are financeing with our money to beat the crap out of us.Think of it as a family, you cannot give your kids more allowance then you are makeing in salary and survive. We haven't had a positive trade balance in 40 years and not independant anymore therefore vulnerable from the outside.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Nice copy and paste id, but there is no shortage of oil.

By: Alphadog7 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Toll roads and bridges are just another tax. When you travel to the Northeast and California and other traditionally blue states, toll roads are everywhere in addition to high taxes and big government. Their hand is on your wallet at every turn. That is not Tennessee, don't let this happen to us.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

That's right. Tennessee is regressive and wants to stay that way.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Whats more regressive then chargeing someone to go to work?

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Previous proposals had toll roads that were privately owned and operated. What about these projects?With high gas prices, less gas is used and less gas tax is collected. Paving material is getting more costly. Looks like a gas tax increase is in order.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

"IF" we were to build toll roads then "WE" should build them with the provision that once they are finish the tolls would be removed like KY did.Why do we have to give away a piece of the action to some of the FOP's. (friends of politicians). The origional plan called for us to still maintain them like the Titians deal Brede$en put togeter.They give us 1/2 million an year and we give them about 22 million.How about the Nisson HQ deal? They got free property taxes and we paid to move them here now Rutherford County wants to raise property taxes to pay for the expenses of the "growth".He should be Constitutionally prohibited from makeing any kinds of "deals".

By: shinestx on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Mike Turner is against the toll road from Hendersonville because he does not own property in the path of the proposed road. He shows his ignorance by saying Davidson Countians don't want to pay for Sumner Countians to get to the airport more quickly. First off, they would not pay for it if they don't use it. Second, Davidson County will pay dearly with increased congestion down I-65 and pollution from cars sitting and creeping through the morass created by a lack of alternate routes through Davidson County. I doubt Old Hickory residents want it to remain a polluted, backwater burg. It's so damn dumpy now, but it would benefit greatly from cross-metro traffic.

By: morpheus120 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

idgaf: "Whats more regressive then chargeing someone to go to work?"Not even close to everyone would need to use a toll road to go to work. Take a bus or move closer to your workplace so you can use local streets. And hey, how about some regional public transportation?And any complaints you have about oil prices need to be directed to (failed) Texas oilman George W. Bush. Don't worry, though. Once Obama and the Democrats take control of the government, the oil barons will pi$$ themselves and you'll see the oil go back down to about $2.50/gallon to resist paying the windfall profits tax.Help is on the way if you vote Democrat, id.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

You're right Morpheus. Once Obama's elected global warming will reverse itself; Israel and Arabs will make peace; Iraq will be self-sufficient; Iran will voluntarily stop working to make a nuke; food prices will decrease; there will be no more flooding or droughts; cats and dogs will live together; Id will learn how to add "ing" correctly; girlie will be forced to shop at K-mart...Everything will correct itself instantly. Who knew?

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Oil at $2.50/gallon = $137.50/barrel. Must be the new math.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Tobacky-chewing, McConnell-electing Kentucky has toll roads. And like everywhere else that has them, they are a pain in the @$$.In NY (as id knows) roads and bridges were built with tolls to remain in place until they were paid for. I think the George Washington Bridge has likely paid for itself twenty or thirty times by now. And the tolls don't go away, they go up.Tolls also create traffic and safety issues. My opinion- just say no.

By: revo-lou on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Dragon, I don’t believe oil is measured in 55 gallon barrels, at least not crude. I think it is measured at 42.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

id there are still a couple of toll roads in KY, Natcher Pkwy for example.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Perhaps they aren't paid for or they wern't under that deal.Why do you tax and spenders always have an excuse?If its our money at risk guarenteeing the bonds we have no business turning over spending that money and shareing it with them hidden from public scruitiny.If we have money to build private roads for governors we can build it.btw just how many people to you think travel from hendersonville to the airport? It would be cheaper to put in helicopter service.

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

lou - I stand corrected. Thanks.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

btw just what is accomplished by shifting the traffic from 65 to 40?

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Most cities have a bypass. Not Nashville. We have bottlenecks.

By: Kosh III on 12/31/69 at 6:00

gdiaWe were supposed to have a bypass: Briley. But the southern end(Woodmont/Thompson?WhiteBridge) never got built and the remainder was built so slowly that it became an inner loop instead. We should focus on widening 109 pdq and finished the 840 south section.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

What are you talking about? you can bypass downtown with 265, Briely parkway (finally) and 440.That other one they just put in and are working on is to far out of town and to long. (840 I think)Think about who approved them too.I really haven't expericed rush hour congestion but see how it can happen with the short exit ramps they have with traffic lights.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

440? Have you driven on 440? It's worse than the downtown loop. You can get from the 65 to 40/24 junction faster if you walk.The downtown congestion is because of the bottlenecks. You have four lanes that reduce to two in every direction, more than once and an unusually high amount of 18 wheelers going thru the city as well.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Briley works if you need to go from 24 to 65N, but if you need 40W, you either go downtown or 440.

By: idgaf on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Your right Kosh 109 does need widening.Seems they spend all there money in Knoxville with their continuous never ending roadwork.It is time we get efficient management instead of the good old boy welfare.ie most don't know that if you make the roadway twice as thick it will last 10 times as long and not be twice the cost.Another thing we and the rest of the country should be doing instead of waiting for the test patch to wear out (its been 40 years) is to mix ground up tires into the blacktop to solve two problems at once. The knowledge and technology is there they just don't want to use it.

By: chiefpayne568 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Look, the tax on gasoline was originally setup because we were told that those who use the roads should have to pay to keep them up. NOW, there is a shortage of funds from those taxes because people are curtailing their use of gasoline or finding alternative sources to keep their vehicles going.So NOW the government wants to make a toll road so those who travel back and forth to work get to pay more than those who don't have to travel so far to work. Now just how fair is THAT???

By: dnewton on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Sumner and Davidson County sends TDOT $217 million dollars a year and could easily afford this toll road by simply instigating a county tax of 2 cents per gallon or finding $19.9 million dollars per year for 40 years of waste in the existing TDOT budget. I would suggest starting with the TDOT Rural Enhancements budget which has practically zero to do with cars and getting to work. It is mostly beautification, road kill mitigation, bicycle paths, scenic easements and recreational trails. I would then go into the ethanol subsidies and free rides on transit provisions, greenways and purchases of vans for van pools for even more. I would not attack the Nashville Star however because if that were not there, I would have no fun reminding people of how silly that project is. Every thing that is wrong with socialism is wrong with TDOT. The transfers of income have been going from urban to rural since the institution of the gas tax. The problem with socialism and the transportation system is the definition of "need." Apparently there is a right to live anywhere and to be able to go anywhere within a reasonable time. Also, with respect to our rural cousins, there is a right to live in any terrain, mountain or swamp, no matter what the initial or annual costs. This mindless demand for asphalt lane equality causes destructive economic forces and entitlement mentalities similar to those responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union and it will break us too. It is the moral equivalent of universal healthcare and is as hard to finance when there is no limit on the definition of need. The TDOT enhancement budget will be three times the congestion mitigation budget and it is more than the Interstate Maintenance budget this year. TDOT is still building plenty of roads but they are not where traffic is highest. We even have now congestion in rural areas. This is the reformed TDOT that the governor and his Comptroller General fixed back in 2003. This is the jewel in the crown of the legislature that is so sacrosanct that it, unlike Tenncare, does not have to sit for and annual audit, especially a performance audit. TDOT will spend about $7.5 million dollars this year on dangerous rural roads. These roads have above average accident rates. Just as half of all school children are below average, I would expect that half of all roads are also below average yet spending in this category seems somewhat low compared to the total budget of $1.8 billion dollars. About seven percent of the TDOT budget is now earmarked. These earmarks are used to get projects going that can not be funded any other way but they have the effect of an across the board cut in both good spending and bad spending categories. Thus earmarking does not improve the large variety of transportation choices, it only helps the governor and the road commissioner avoid hard choices. The working theory on the toll roads is that they will be able to get about 15 cents per vehicle mile while the average income of TDOT for non-tolled roads is only about 2 cents per mile. Toll roads often need a little state gas money to get started and so they are often paid for out of a blend of tolls and gas tax revenues. The argument that it is double taxation is not always accurate, especially if the state does not have the courage to raise tolls to match the inflationary pressures over the lifetime of the infrastructure. I am 100 percent sure that any toll road built under the current limitations set by the legislature will be a spectacular failure. They have done everything possible to guarantee failure starting with making sure the most competent people, mostly foreign corporations, will never get a chance at running a toll road. If toll roads are operated just as another cash cow that helps the survival of less important roads then nothing will be accomplished except stepping back into the comfort zone that made it so hard to take responsibility for this fiasco called a highway department. The legislature has forbidden even the investigation of tolling except in certain specific locations. Not every road can be tolled and break even. The usual practice is for the Interstates or major arterials to make most of the cash and the "excess" money be used to build speculative ventures where traffic counts are too low to pay for the infrastructure. In the past five years the Tennessee ratio of people per lane miles has been remarkable stable and is approximately 31 people per lane mile. To get the state back to where they were in the year 2000, however, TDOT must build an additional 2014 lane miles. This is the equivalent of adding two lanes to all rural Interstates in Tennessee. That would be about $14.4 billion or eight years of income. The current vehicle per mile take for TDOT is so low that there are at least 22 miles of interstates now that do not get enough tax revenue to pay for their own routine maintenace.

By: Anonymous on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Add the cost of collecting tolls (machines, workers, mainteance), and the cost of lost lifespan for drivers waiting to pay - and you'll quickly see that this is the worst imaginable way to fund a project. If you are not a believer, try to get from Washington DC to Philadelphia on I-95 during a holiday. The backup at the toll booths can add 30 mins to 2 hours to this very short trip. Increase the tax on gas. If you live in the country, you should expect to pay more gas tax. That's part of the tradeoff.

By: MetalMan on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Our carpet bager Governor is at it again. Toll roads work in Connecticut, they should work in Tennessee - Right? The tax payers won't mind once they get used to it. Just the same old pitiful tax-and-spend liberal philosophy. Of course Bredesen would hock everyting to get on a presidential ticket, even if it's with a Muslim.