Tennessee bill would protect fuel tax for road use

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Friday, March 18, 2016

At a time when Tennessee is falling behind on road projects, legislation at the statehouse would halt use of state fuel tax revenue for many bicycle and pedestrian projects.

The House Transportation Committee voted 8-6 to advance a bill that would prohibit fuel tax revenue distributed to counties, cities and the state highway fund from being used for the construction, improvement, or maintenance of pedestrian paths and bicycle lanes along roads with posted speeds of more than 35 mph.

Along new or reconstructed roadways posted at 35 mph or below, in certain instances fuel tax revenue could not be used to construct dedicated bicycle lanes.

The restrictions would not be applied to sidewalks.

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, about $18 million of the agency’s annual revenue is routed to bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, said the intent of the bill is to ensure that fuel tax revenue is applied for its intended purpose, which is transporting goods and services, as well as transporting individuals.

Cities, counties and the state could continue to use fuel tax revenue as a match to draw down federal funding for any projects that include non-vehicular facilities. Bike lane funding via the fuel tax would also be permitted if an engineer finds that lanes are necessary in an area.

Critics say the timing is not good to strip funding for infrastructure that protects cyclists and pedestrians. They cite statistics that show 2015 was the deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists in the state.

Others say the state has no business telling municipalities how they are supposed to use funds for local needs.

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, reasoned that an additional tax should be applied to benefit uses that include bike and pedestrian facilities.

“I have a hard time justifying why we should divert taxes from (road use) to benefit those,” Ragan said during discussion on the bill.

The bill, HB1650, awaits further consideration in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Discussion about limiting fuel tax revenue for road funding comes as Gov. Bill Haslam is meeting with key state lawmakers about the possibility of the state’s first rate increase since 1989.

The state tax rates now are 21.4 cents per gallon on gas and 18.4 cents on diesel. The taxes raise $632 million and $167 million annually, respectively.

The Haslam administration says changes are needed to address the state’s $6 billion backlog in funding for transportation work.

A separate proposal to authorize local governments to raise the fuel tax to pay for transportation work has been sent to a summer study session, essentially killing it for the year.

The governor has said he supports giving cities and counties authorization to levy their own fuel tax to address transportation needs.

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

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