Rep. Sparks votes against the ‘Improve’ Act

Sam Stockard, The Murfreesboro Post, May 14, 2017

Projects to widen New Salem Highway from Cason Lane to I-24 and Old Fort Parkway will start a year sooner than expected in the wake of two moves to bolster the state’s transportation fund.

Projects to widen New Salem Highway from Cason Lane to I-24 and Old Fort Parkway will start a year sooner than expected in the wake of two moves to bolster the state’s transportation fund.

Construction to widen a 2.2-mile stretch of New Salem from Cason Lane to the interstate could start this August, according to state Sen. Bill Ketron, followed by work to widen a 1.4-mile section from I-24 to Old Fort in fiscal 2019.

“That’s awesome, both of them,” Ketron said. He pointed out the projects were on the drawing board but were expected to start a year later.

The Murfreesboro Republican predicted projects to widen New Salem to Armstrong Valley Road and to widen West Jefferson Pike from Smyrna to just east of I-840 would follow.

‘Robust’ TDOT plan

The Tennessee Department of Transportation released its three-year road construction program, saying passage of the governor’s IMPROVE Act will inject $150 million into road and bridge work in the coming year. Combined with a $120 million transfer of money from the general fund into the transportation fund, it will enabled the state to take on a more “robust” work plan than usual.

Four-cent increases in gas and diesel taxes in fiscal 2018, plus a 3-cent increase in alternative fuel taxes, are expected to bring in $150 million next year. Gas and diesel taxes will rise seven cents and 10 cents over three years, to 27.4 cents and 28.4 cents.

“The IMPROVE Act is a comprehensive, conservative and responsible plan that directly addresses how we fund our roads and bridges for the first time in 30 years. Many of those projects would not have moved forward for several years without this additional infrastructure investment,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement.

The TDOT release details 101 projects in 40 counties costing an estimated $2.6 billion. The state says it has $10.5 billion in backlogged projects.

The IMPROVE Act, a combination of gas and diesel tax increases offset by reductions in food tax, Hall tax on interest and dividends and franchise and excise breaks for businesses and manufacturers, is required to take on 962 projects affecting all 95 counties statewide over the next 15 years.

Ketron said he had “no doubt” passing the IMPROVE Act was the right step to take. He and Sen. Jim Tracy, who represents part of Rutherford, supported it, pointing out it will continue to depend mainly on fuel taxes, a large portion of which are paid by out-of-state travelers and truckers, to fund road and bridge work. In addition, it requires no new debt for infrastructure and keeps the general fund intact for education and other state spending under a $37 billion budget approved for fiscal 2018.

Some opposition

Rutherford County’s four Republican state representatives, Tim Rudd, Dawn White, Mike Sparks and Bryan Terry, voted against the IMPROVE Act, all of them saying they opposed raising fuel taxes when the state had a $1 billion surplus in non-recurring money and a projection of nearly $1 billion more in extra recurring funds.

White said she supported returning the $120 million to TDOT after former Gov. Phil Bredesen‘s administration took that money in the 2007 era to shore up the state budget.

“With the IMPROVE Act, I am always for infrastructure and to make our roads and bridges better. I just still believe to this day we could have done it without having to raise taxes,” White said.

Fuel tax increases, once they take full effect in three years, are expected to raise about $300 million. The Legislature could have given the transportation fund that amount from surpluses without increasing taxes, White contended.

Rudd disputed the fact that this increase in transportation money is speeding up New Salem Highway work, saying he was told engineering work and land acquisition on the New Salem project and a separate project for Franklin Road were under way before the Legislature voted on the IMPROVE Act.

“They can say what they want,” said Rudd, who represents southeast Murfreesboro and Rutherford County. “And to me, the IMPROVE Act is irrelevant because the same amount of money that the IMPROVE Act is giving TDOT would have happened under the Harwell-Hawk plan as well. It’s just a matter of where the money’s coming from. One was coming from the tax hike, and one was coming from the general fund surplus.”

The Harwell-Hawk plan was developed by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. David Hawk, a Greeneville Republican, to take money from the sales tax on vehicles to pay for transportation projects, instead of increasing fuel taxes.

Rudd contended tax cuts made to the grocery tax, Hall income tax on dividends and interest and to franchise and excise taxes on businesses and manufacturers could come back to haunt Tennessee if the economy flounders. Legislative leaders called those a “reallocation” of tax revenue.

“We’ve got a total loss of $500 million in revenue that’s gone. We can’t get it back without a tax hike, and if we have an economic downturn and the sales tax (revenue) goes down, we’re gonna have to be cutting services,” he said.

The governor’s $37 billion budget, however, includes adding $132 million to the rainy day fund and adding money to the TennCare reserve, bringing those to a total of more than $1 billion.

Cut a deal

Meanwhile, Ketron described a situation in which House Republicans made a last-minute deal with Republican Senate leaders to support the budget in exchange for shifting $55 million – which the governor wanted to “jumpstart” road projects – into the state Street Aid Fund for county governments.

“It was one of those compromises that I really didn’t like but I went along with it,” said Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who chairs the Senate Majority Caucus.

The $55 million will be divided based on county population and distributed across Tennessee. Ketron predicted Rutherford could receive about $1 million, maybe less, for its highway department.

“They wanted to be able to go back home and tell people back home they got something specifically for their county. I think it was a bad move,” Ketron said. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to be there until June fighting over it and having the budget blow up.”

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