Toll road bills advance in Tennessee

| 5/22/2007

With the state struggling to pay for transportation work, legislation on the move in the Tennessee statehouse would authorize tolling as a method to pay for new road and bridge work in the state.

The proposed “Tennessee Tollway Act” would allow the state to issue bonds and incur debt to pay for toll projects. Private groups also would be allowed to build and operate the “pay-to-play” routes.

The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved a bill – SB1152 – that would allow tolls “as an additional and alternative method” to pay for highway work. It doesn’t specify toll roads or rates.

An amendment added to the bill would limit the initial number of projects to two locations. The companion bill – HB1204 – also was changed in committee to limit projects.

Rep. Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, said the funding mechanism could be the best option to pay for vital projects such as an additional Mississippi River bridge at Memphis.

Gov. Phil Bredesen told The Tennessean newspaper he likes the tolling effort. He said it could avert a need to raise the state’s fuel tax to pay for new roads.

Pinion said it would only delay the urgency to increase the fuel tax rate.

Supporters of the toll plan cite a projected 10 percent cut in federal funding in the coming year. Among the issues causing uncertainty about available dollars are soaring construction costs, including asphalt, and ongoing negotiations about federal funding for highway projects.

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

Both bills have been forwarded to their respective Finance, Ways and Means Committee.