By Brad Hicks
The initial report brought with it a number of questions and concerns, according to State Sen. Rusty Crowe.
To clear up confusion on the impact recently-passed legislation will have on his constituents, Crowe hosted a town hall meeting, held Friday at Erwin Town Hall and attended by Tennessee Department of Transportation officials, as well as transportation officials and leaders from Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.
Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law the Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy, or IMPROVE, Act. Through this bill, a gas tax increase will be implemented beginning July 1. Through the tax increase, gasoline prices will eventually increase by 6 cents and diesel fuel costs will eventually increase by 10 cents. The state intends to use the additional funding garnered through the IMPROVE Act to fund nearly 1,000 road and bridge projects across the state.
Crowe said this is the first time in nearly 30 years the state has taken action to raise money for roads, a move he said was necessary due to transportation revenue lost due to more fuel-efficient vehicles coupled with increasing costs of road and bridge repair materials.
State officials have stated the IMPROVE Act provides “the largest tax cut in Tennessee history.” Although the fuel cost increases will be phased in over three years, the IMPROVE Act’s passage will bring with it cuts to reduce the tax burden on Tennesseans, Crowe said. These include a 20 percent reduction to the state’s sales tax on groceries, a continuing reduction in the Hall Tax until it is eliminated, and the elimination of franchise and excise taxes on businesses in the state.
In all, Crowe said, the IMPROVE Act will generate around $350 million in new tax revenue while reducing taxes by a total of $500 million.
“So we took off more than we put on,” he said.
Subsequent to the bill’s passage, the governor and TDOT Commissioner John Schroer released the state’s annual three-year transportation plan which, according to the state, was made more “robust” due to the funding increases through the IMPROVE Act. This, Crowe said, is when the confusion surrounding the IMPROVE Act began.
The transportation plan released for 2018-20 listed no projects in either Washington County or Unicoi County for the three-year period. A single project in Carter County was listed in the plan.
Crowe said the information disseminated by the state and local media reports of the lack of local projects listed in the plan unintentionally created confusion and concern.
“We’re getting three to four times more than we’ve ever gotten for our counties before, so it’s kind of misleading,” Crowe said. “They didn’t mean to mislead, and the media didn’t mean to mislead.”
Steve Borden, TDOT’s Region 1 director, said Friday that Tennessee pays for transportation projects as funding becomes available and projects are completed in phases. Projects slated for completion but falling outside of the plan’s three-year window were not included in the report.
Also, local bridges as listed in the IMPROVE Act were not included in the three-year transportation plan released by the state earlier this month. Borden said a bridge report is set to be released by the state in the next few weeks.
According to officials, state transportation dollars will be used to complete more than 50 road and bridge projects across Washington, Unicoi and Carter counties.
Five bridge projects with a total estimated cost of $4,639,000 are to be completed in Unicoi County through IMPROVE Act funding. The state bridge along Unicoi Drive is to be replaced, and four bridges crossing county roads will also be replaced. Those four bridges are the Carver Road bridge over Dry Creek, the Hensley Road bridge over South Indian Creek, the Locust Lane bridge over South Indian Creek, and the Tumbling Creek Road bridge over Spivey Creek.
“This is a legislative act,” Borden said. “These projects are set in stone. They are being delivered.”
Unicoi County will also be provided approximately $1 million additional transportation dollars through the Improve Act. Local municipalities will see a recurring $105,000 provided annually for transportation projects, and the county will receive a recurring $555,000 for projects. The Unicoi County Highway Department will also receive a one-time bonus in State Aid Funds in the 2018 fiscal year in the amount of $391,068. This one-time funding is on top of the regular State Aid allotment the department receives annually from the state.
Unicoi County Superintendent of Roads Terry Haynes said the additional funding will benefit the county greatly and aid his department in completing transportation projects on its plate.
“The extra money coming in is great,” Haynes said. “It couldn’t come at a better time.”
Although not included in the IMPROVE Act, Borden also pointed out that the state has invested a great amount of effort and resources into the Rocky Fork State Park project, including a project that would see the widening of the road leading into the park and the extension of a waterline to the area. Included in the state’s 2017-18 budget now awaiting Haslam’s signature is more than $4 million for the completion of the visitors’ center at the state park located in Unicoi County
“So we’re really on track with Rocky Fork,” Borden said.