transportation

Alexander, Corker, Duncan seek fed focus on alleged defective guardrails

Three Tennessee congressmen – Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, along with Rep. John Duncan Jr. – are asking federal officials to consider revoking their approval for the use of highway guardrails linked to four fatalities in Tennessee, reports WJHL-TV.

In the letter, they asked FHWA Acting Deputy Administrator Butch Waidelich, Jr. to consider revoking its letter of eligibility for the X-Lite Terminal Guard rail issued in 2011.

The eligibility letter indicates the product has been tested and is eligible for federal reimbursements for states that use it.

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‘Open container’ bill dies despite Haslam’s support

Legislation prohibiting open containers of an alcoholic beverage in moving vehicles is dead again this year even though Gov. Bill Haslam made it part of his official legislative package for 2017.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who has pushed the idea for years, had hoped Haslam’s backing would make a difference, reports WJHL-TV, and is disappointed by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (sponsoring SB1219 for the administration) pulled the bill without a vote.

Norris said there’s not enough support among legislators for passage and debating the matter would be “a distraction” from the push for passage of the governor’s priority bill of the year — a package of tax legislation including increases in gas and diesel fuel taxes.

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Report: Poor TN road conditions cost drivers $6B

A national transportation research group says deterioration, congestion and lack of safety features on Tennessee roads and bridges cost the state’s drivers $6 billion annually, according to an AP brief summarizing the study.

The report by TRIP was released Tuesday, the day before a House floor vote on Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to raise the gas tax for road improvements. The group says the $6 billion figure includes higher vehicle operating costs, traffic crashes and congestion-related delays.  

The report says the average extra cost to each driver annually is $2,019 in Memphis, $1,667 in Nashville, $1,471 in Chattanooga and $1,376 in Knoxville.

Note: The full report is HERE. TRIP bills itself as a nonprofit research organization “sponsored by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, distributors and suppliers; businesses involved in highway and transit engineering and construction; labor unions; and organizations concerned with efficient and safe surface transportation.”

Haslam on school bus seat belts: I’m not for the bill, but would sign it

Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill responding to a fatal school bus wreck in Chattanooga last year has been moved ahead without opposition but he’s staying out of a more controversial debate over whether the vehicles should be required to have seat belts, reports the Times-Free Press.

The governor told reporters that his administration is “technical deferred” on HB395 by Rep. JoAnn Favors, D-Chattanooga. His bill (HB322) won unanimous House approval Monday. Favors’ bill has cleared a couple of key committees on close votes, but still has a long way to go.

“I think there’s a big discussion back and forth in the Legislature,” Haslam said. “Deferred means if they pass it, we’ll sign it and figure out a way to fund it. But we’re not actively engaged in that one. The proposal we made was the proposal that we obviously wanted to make certain would happen.”

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Dad tells legislators TDOT at fault in daughter’s death

In tearful testimony Tuesday, the father of a 17-year-old Lenoir City girl whose death was the result of an apparently defective guardrail demanded Tennessee lawmakers take action to prevent future deaths, reports The Tennessean.

Steven Eimers, the father of Hannah Eimers, gave an emotional presentation before the House Transportation Committee, blaming the culture within the Tennessee Department of Transportation and shoddy technology for his daughter’s death. He demanded new independent inspections of guardrails, felony charges for improperly installing them and incentives for state workers to report faulty installation and damage.

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Bill on school bus seat belts clears House panel 9-7

A bill requiring Tennessee school buses to be equipped with seat belts cleared the House Transportation Committee with a 9-7 vote Tuesday amid concerns over costs and other factors. The bill by Rep. JoAnn Favors, D-Chattanooga, (HB395) was prompted by a Nov. 21, 2016, school bus crash that killed six Chattanooga children.

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Judge voids TN billboard regulation law

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla of Memphis has declared Tennessee’s Billboard Regulation and Control Act unconstitutional, invalidating a law that has governed outdoor advertising in the state since 1972, reports the Commercial Appeal.

The ruling Friday came down on the side of Memphis billboard operator William H. Thomas Jr., who had alleged in a lawsuit that Tennessee Department of Transportation officials violated his constitutional rights in their efforts to remove a sign he constructed at the Interstate 40-240 interchange in East Memphis despite being denied a permit for it.

Although local governments often regulate billboards through zoning ordinances, McCalla’s decision potentially opens up vast areas of the state to unfettered proliferation of outdoor signs along highways. It also could result in a 10 percent cut in federal highway funds to Tennessee because the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 requires states to regulate billboards to federal standards.

The ruling follows a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down portions of an Arizona town’s sign ordinance on free-speech grounds, a case cited by McCalla. With the latest decision, similar litigation is likely to be lodged against other states’ billboard laws, say advocates of controls on outdoor advertising.

“It will also have an impact … far beyond Tennessee,” said William Brinton, an attorney who represented Scenic America, Scenic Tennessee and other groups seeking to preserve the billboard regulation law.

Thomas’ suit attracted allies among limited-government groups such as The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which say that billboard laws, by allowing regulatory exemptions for certain types of messages, impose undue “content-based” regulation of speech.

But advocates of billboard laws say the rules are needed as a means of protecting not just aesthetics but property values and possibly traffic safety.

TDOT bills dead teen for damaging guardrail that killed her

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has apologized to a Loudon County man for sending his dead daughter a bill for nearly $3,000 to replace the guardrail that killed her in a car crash last November, reports The Tennessean.

In addition to refusing to pay the bill, Steven Eimers alleges the model of guardrail end involved in his daughter Hannah’s death is “horribly designed” and dangerous, and that “the culture at TDOT is more concerned with making up catchy slogans than actual safety.”

TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said the bill was the result of “a mistake somewhere in processing,” and that TDOT “greatly apologizes for it.” The Eimers family does not have to pay, and another letter is being sent to explain the error, Nagi said.

Around 5:44 a.m. Nov. 1, Hannah Eimers, 17, was driving her father’s 2000 Volvo S80 on Interstate 75 North near Niota when the car left the road, traveled into the median and hit the end of the guardrail with the driver’s side door, according to a Tennessee Highway Patrol crash report.

Instead of deflecting the car or buckling to absorb the impact, the guardrail end impaled the vehicle, striking Hannah in the head and chest and pushing her into the back seat, according to the report. She died instantly.

The Volvo spun to the right anred “took out approximately 15 to 20 feet of guardrail” before it skidded to a stop…  Four months later, Hannah’s father received a $2,970 bill from TDOT, dated Feb. 24 and addressed to Hannah, for the cost of labor and materials to install 25 feet of guardrail at the scene of the crash.

Eimers said he was “flabbergasted” that TDOT would “bill my daughter for the defective device that killed her.”

The guardrail end Hannah hit was a Lindsay X-LITE — a model that TDOT had removed from its approved products list just one week (before her death)r…. due to concerns “about how the telescoping w-beam, slider assembly friction reduction systems may perform if impacted at higher speeds” than 100 kph or 62.2 mph.

Bill mandating school bus seat belts clears first vote

A bill requiring all Tennessee school buses be equipped with safety restraint systems by mid-2023 cleared its first House hurdle Wednesday, report the Times-Free Press. The voice vote came after two Chattanooga physicians gave dramatic testimony about the “terrible night” in November when a Hamilton County school bus crashed, killing six children and injuring others.

“I truly believe that the pain of those families and suffering of their children could have been prevented or lessened,” Dr. Alan Kohrt, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, told Transportation Subcommittee members.

He said that included not just the seat belt bill (HB395) sponsored by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, but another Favors bil (HB127)l. It requires school bus drivers be at least 25 years old and have had a five-year clean driving history before getting licensed by the state to transport students.

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House Transportation Committee votes for revised Haslam tax bill

The House Transportation Committee today approved, 11-7, the same revised version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tax package — including higher taxes on fuel and lower taxes on food – that was approved earlier in the Senate Transportation Committee. The panel has been viewed as the biggest obstacle to ultimate approval of the governor’s proposal, though several hurdles remain.

The vote came after about 90 minutes of debate and defeat or withdrawal of multiple amendments. A couple of amendments were adopted. Most notably, perhaps, one would reverse a current law that says that any cut in federal gas taxes would automatically trigger a corresponding increase in state gas taxes. The amendment says any increase in federal taxes would trigger a corresponding decrease in state fuel levies.

The most debated amendment was on a proposal by Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, that would have diverted money from sales taxes collected from the sale of vehicles to the highway fund without any fuel tax increase. It failed on an 8-10 vote.

The basic bill (HB534), as now approved by both the House and Senate Transportation Committees, raises the gas tax by six cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon – both increases phased in over a three-year period. The governor’s original proposal was seven cents per gallon on gas and 12 cents on diesel, both taking full effect July 1.

The revised version also cut the state sales tax on groceries from 5 percent to 4 percent. Originally, Haslam proposed a reduction to just 4.5 percent. Administration officials say the grocery tax, for most average Tennesseans, would now more than offset the increased taxes they will pay for fuel.

Most other provisions of the governor’s original package remain in place — including a corporate tax break designed to benefit for manufacturers.

The revised bill also won approval today, as expected, in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. In the Senate, it now goes to the Finance Committee. In the House, it now goes to the Local Government Committee.

The committees overseeing local government legislation are involved because the bill also includes provisions allowing city and county governments to hold referendums on raising taxes for transportation spending.

Note: The House committee roll call vote is HERE.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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