Tennessee bills would amend tollway act

| 2/22/2008

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

Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a bill into law last year that authorizes 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 the road or bridge or toll rates.

With the movement toward tolling, the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved a bill that would prohibit the state from partnering with foreign-owned businesses to complete work.

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. SB2724 is awaiting a full Senate vote. The companion bill – HB2813 – is in a House subcommittee.

House Transportation Chairman Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, said he would like to see more projects made available for tolling. As a result, Pinion has 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 companion bill in the Senate is SB3091. Both versions are in their respective transportation committees.

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 lost out on $153 million in federal funds this budget year, The Leaf-Chronicle 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 in 2008, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor