Jake Old • Mt. Juliet News
Gov. Bill Haslam spoke at a town hall meeting Thursday night. He and state Rep. Susan Lynn, who organized the meeting, discussed the proposed IMPROVE Act, which would introduce significant tax cuts and increase the state’s gas tax.
Gov. Bill Haslam was in Wilson County on Thursday for a town hall meeting organized by state Rep. Susan Lynn regarding the proposed IMPROVE Act, which would result in tax cuts and a gas tax increase, and is designed to address issues with transportation funding.
Specifically, the IMPROVE Act would increase the road user fee or gas tax by 7 cents for a gallon of gas and 12 cents for a gallon of diesel, and increases car registration fees by $5 for the average passenger vehicle, which is expected to bring in $278 million in new money for backlogged transportation projects.
Along with the increases are proposed significant tax cuts on food and manufacturing.
According to Lynn, it could possibly include introducing an open container law into the state, which would take away a significant penalty that has to be paid by the state for not having such a law, thus opening up more funds to be distributed in different ways.
The act also calls for expediting the elimination of the Hall income tax, which is already statutorily required to be eliminated by 2022.
The state’s gas tax was last increased in 1989. Since then, the cost to repair and maintain roads has doubled, and the tax, which is an excise tax — meaning it stays consistent no matter the price of the product — is equivalent to roughly half of what it was almost 30 years ago due to inflation.
“We’re trying to keep up with our roads, and it costs twice as much and we have half as much money now,” Haslam said.
Dozens of community members turned out to hear Haslam and Lynn explain the act. A question-and-answer session was held at the end of the event.
Several people questioned why money from a surplus could not be used rather than increasing the gas tax. Haslam said he did not want to commit surplus money to the road projects because they are too important and the surplus is not guaranteed every year.
“I can go ahead and tell you now, we’re probably not going to have a surplus this next year,” Haslam said. “I’ve spent hours and hours and hours looking at that budget.”
Haslam said he feels now is the best time to act on addressing the backlog of road projects.
“This is something that would be impossible for a new governor,” he said. “I would love to be remembered as the governor who cut all of these taxes and started Tennessee Promise, and leave it at that, but this is too important, and I can’t leave that for a new, first-term governor to try to handle.”
Under the IMPROVE Act, a total of 962 projects throughout the state would start within the next eight years, including 10 Wilson County road projects.
Among the Wilson County projects are two highly debated roadways in State Route 109 and South Mt. Juliet Road. The State Route 109 project is designated for the roadway from Highway 70 and north to the county line at Dry Fork Creek. The 7.5 miles of work is estimated to cost $18.5 million. The South Mt. Juliet Road project is estimated to cost $25.4 million to address the area between Central Pike and Providence Way.
Two Interstate 40 projects could address issues from Interstate 840 to Highway 70 and from State Route 109 to 840. The project’s estimated total is $94 million.
Other projects include Central Pike from Old Hickory Boulevard to Mt. Juliet Road, Highway 70 from Park Glen Drive to Bender’s Ferry Road, Hartsville Pike from south of Spring Creek to north of Lover’s Lane and Hartsville Pike from north of Lovers Lane to Highway 70.
A new interchange at I-40 and Central Pike is also listed under the interstate program and estimated at $14.2 million.
Another project would feature I-40 and stretches across Davidson, Dickson, Cheatham, Williamson and Wilson counties, estimated to cost $4 million.
Haslam said he is open to hearing other ideas from the Tennessee General Assembly, but he fundamentally opposes any idea in which Tennesseans are paying the brunt of a bill driven up by outsiders; by raising the gas tax, those who drive on the roads will help pay for the roads when buying gas, including commercial truck drivers who drive through the state. Truck drivers are required to buy fuel in a state proportionate to the amount of miles they drive in that state, Haslam said.
“I believe there will be other plans, and they will be talked about,” Haslam said. “I’m a governor, not a king. Just because I propose something, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way it can happen.”
By Jake Old