Tennessee lawmakers advance bills to amend tollway act

| 4/2/2008

With the state struggling to pay for needed transportation work, multiple measures moving through the Tennessee statehouse would expand the number of projects that could be paid off through tolls.

The state has no toll roads, but Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a bill into law last year that authorized tolling as a method to pay for new road and bridge work. The “Tennessee Tollway Act” allows the state to issue bonds and incur debt to pay for two pilot toll projects: one bridge and one road.

The law allows tolls “as an additional and alternative method” to pay for highway work. It doesn’t specify toll roads or rates.

With the movement toward tolling, the state’s Senate and House have approved a bill that would limit the operation of toll facilities. The bill – SB2724 – would require any companies contracting with the state to operate toll roads or bridges to be majority American owned.

Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, said he doesn’t support toll facilities, but if they come to Tennessee he wants to require them to be operated by American businesses. He said the measure would emulate Federal Communications Commission rules that require radio stations to be American-owned to prevent foreign interference in cases of national emergency.

SB2724 has moved to the governor’s desk.

Another bill moving forward would remove a cap on the number of toll projects that could be built.

House Transportation Chairman Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, said he would like to see more projects made available for tolling. As a result, Pinion introduced a bill – HB2868 – that would amend the law to drop the two project limit and allow the Tennessee Department of Transportation to look into as many toll projects as it chooses.

The House voted 77-13 to advance the bill to the Senate for further consideration.

A similar measure to expand the state’s tolling authority recently won approval in the House Public Transportation and Highways Subcommittee. Sponsored by Rep. William Borchert, D-Camden, the bill would authorize a third pilot toll project.

Borchert’s bill – HB2836 – would specify a bridge be erected over the Tennessee River to connect Benton and Houston counties via state Route 147.

Another bill also calls for adding a third project. Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, wants to authorize a bridge crossing the Mississippi River in the Memphis area.

Hardaway’s bill – HB2768 – and Borchert’s bill are in the House Transportation Committee. The companion versions in the Senate – SB3718 and SB3003, respectively – also are in committee.

Supporters of tolling in the state point to encouragement from the federal government to consider alternative methods to pay for road and bridge work as a way to compensate for fewer federal funds. Tennessee has lost out on more than $230 million in federal funds this budget year, The Associated Press reported.

Opponents say toll roads amount to an extra tax, when fuel and other taxes should cover road building. Others say Bredesen should repay about $280 million diverted from the state’s road fund during his first term to other programs.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Tennessee, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor