$371 Million Traffic Plan Adopted, But Who Will Pay For It?

The county needs to spend more than a third of a billion dollars on roads by 2040 to keep up with growth and manage traffic, and on Monday night the County Commission rejected all the funding options offered by a study.

Instead, they threw down the gauntlet and called on the state government to fund it by sending back to the county revenue raised by the Improve Act, which added 6 cents tax per gallon to gasoline and is supposed to fund needed road projects statewide.

At the Monday commission meeting, this came about because the commissioners adopted a strategic plan created by a traffic study that looked at long-term solutions to address traffic. It concluded that the county needs $371 million to make its recommended improvements– $223 million for capital projects like building new roads or widening, extending or improving existing ones; and $155 million for operational costs. Currently, the county’s 2017-18 budget for roads is $11.5 million– and most of that is going to operations rather than construction. The study also recommended five different ways the county might fund the plan.

The commission liked the plan, but none of the ways offered to pay for it.

“I would like to accept the report, and I look at all that math in funding mechanism as an interesting analysis at relative levels of pain and burden that we would suffer if we used one of these to fund an unfunded liability,” Commission Todd Kaestner said.

He made a motion to amend the traffic-plan adoption resolution to include the traffic study’s plans but exclude its recommendations for funding the plans. The amendment passed and then so too did the resolution, as amended. And just like that the county had a strategic plan to address traffic through 2040, but no official way to fund it. Several commissioners had very specific thoughts about how they thought the plan should receive revenue, and they seemed to be very much in accord with Kaestner.

“I would like the state legislature to come through and reciprocate and fund this shortfall,” Kaestner said. “I think that is why we supported the Improve Act in the face of a $2 billion surplus per year at the state level.”

The Improve Act gas tax hike began phasing in July, and will add 6 cents total per gallon over three years. It is expected to raise $10 billion that the state will use to fund much-needed but under-funded roads projects throughout the state.

“I supported that act to have some of that money go to this, solve exactly this problem,” Kaestner said. “I look at $371 million and that is a lot of money. It is 3.7 percent of the $10 billion we were told the act would raise, right there at that podium when [Gov. Bill Haslam’s team] came here. I think our county represents more than 3.7 percent of the economic horsepower of the state of Tennessee. I am unimpressed with the idea that we ought to fund this ourselves.”

Most of the five offered options to fund the $371 million included one or some combination of a wheel tax, a gas tax, a business tax, impact fees, sales tax, or property tax.

One of the five now-rejected options funding the plan, which largely includes road projects in the unincorporated areas of the county, was to put a tax burden solely on residents of those areas.

After all, he said, just because the road projects that need to be done are in the unincorporated part of the county that does not mean the residents in those areas are the only ones who use them.

“Much of the traffic in our county is flow through coming from Rutherford and Davidson, and so on,” Kaestner said. “The idea we might look at residents of the unincorporated county to soley fund unincorporated roads that are used by everyone to me is nonsensical; I think it would be a cold day in hell before we allow that part of the county to fund 100 percent of these projects.”

What exactly happens next, and when, however, is uncertain. The state decides how to allocate the Improve Act revenue.

Kaestner said that the commission will have to speak with legislators to try to find a solution.