TDOT gives IMPROVE a SPOT online

In promoting Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax plan to IMPROVE Tennessee roads, the Department of Transportation’s website has a new feature – an interactive map of all projects that could be funded with more money. And, of course, it has a new acronym: SPOT (Statewide Project Overview Tracker).

It’s HERE. The welcoming message reads;

Welcome to the SPOT website. This website is designed to provide you with an interactive tool to navigate priority transportation projects across the State of Tennessee. This application is a project overview tracker of county, TDOT region, and legislative districts for you to view basic details for transportation infrastructure, safety and economic development in locations that are important to you.

The projects are also categorized by their program type describing the primary benefit they offer the public of the State of Tennessee.

Note: ICYMI, IMPROVE stands for Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy. TDOT is the Tennessee Department of Transportation (pronounced tee-dot).

Can Haslam succeed with ‘pass the bottle’ ban where others failed?

Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to ban open containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles has been filed and is the subject of several media reports questioning whether it can pass with the governor’s backing after years of failure in past sessions.

The bill is HB532, part of the governor’s package of legislation aimed at increasing highway fund revenue.

From WPLN:

(Sen. Jon) Lundberg, R-Bristol, has tried five times to extend the state’s ban on open containers to include passengers. Each time, it has failed. Conventional wisdom is that tailgaters would like to have a nip (or two, going to or from) from the game.

Lundberg says that’s not just bad policy. It’s been costing the state money.

The federal government penalizes states that don’t have across-the-board open container bans by withholding some funding. The Haslam administration puts those loses at $18 million a year.

“This is a big chunk of money,” Lundberg says. “(When) people talk about raising the gas tax, they want to know you are squeezing every other drop of money that we’ve got to take care of this, right?”

With the governor pushing for more money for roads, he’s made getting rid of the pass-the-bottle loophole one of his priorities for the year. That’s served to elevate the issue.

Other stories: The Associated Press report, WSMV-TV, WRCB-TV.

DUI enforcement cut by governor’s ‘open container’ proposal

As proposed, Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation funding package would eliminate 57 positions dedicated to enforcing drunken driving laws by district attorneys general staff across the state. The Times-Free Press reports the governor is open to address the resulting concerns of prosecutors.

The provision in question in the governor’s legislation, which would also raise fuel taxes, would outlaw open containers of alcoholic beverages in cars on the road. Because Tennessee doesn’t already have an open container prohibition, $18 million in federal highway funds cannot be used for road construction and maintenance and instead goes to other programs – including $6.5 million now used for special DUI prosecutors, training and police overtime for DUI enforcement. With passage of the governor’s plan, all $18 million would be shifted to road construction.

“We’re aware of that,” the governor said last week. “We fund some DUI [enforcement], DAs through that. We’re willing to look at other ways to make sure that function gets paid for. We realize that’s critical.”

…Jerry Estes, former 10th Judicial District attorney general and now executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, recently said DAs in 25 of the state’s 31 judicial districts rely on the funding. He said prosecutors are hoping to work something out.

“Our concern is 57 positions that would be lost if they’re not funded another way,” Estes said. “And what those 57 positions do, they’re very involved, of course, in prosecuting DUIs and vehicular homicides.”

Moreover, Estes said, the money also helps train sheriffs, police departments, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other enforcement agencies to combat DUI and impaired driving.

“Tennessee’s DUI deaths on the highways have gone down greatly since these programs have been in place,” said Estes, who called them “very crucial” to that success.

…Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, a former prosecutor, said the $18 million, including the $6.5 million that now goes to prosecutors, needs to be replaced.

“If we can take $18 million out of the general fund and allocate that towards safety, specifically toward 57 positions in the district attorneys’ offices, officer overtime, roadblocks and advertising to combat intoxicated driving, I think that’s a great solution,” Lamberth said.


Haslam said “not having the open container law has meant that the federal government’s telling us how we can spend that $18 million.”


“I think we should choose how we spend that and then to decide do we want to fund DUI, DAs another way,” the governor said. “But in the meantime, money that should be going to roads should be going to roads.”

Ramsey signs up to advise coalition pushing gas tax hike

Recently retired Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is joining the newly created Advisory Council of the Transportation Coalition of Tennessee, reports the Nashville Post — presumably to help the promotion of Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, which includes a gas tax hike.

Rumors have been swirling that Ramsey would be working as a “consultant” on occasion during session, possibly in advance of setting up shop as a registered lobbyist next year, after the one-year cooling off period has ended. And now he’s advising a group pushing for an increase in the state’s transportation funding — some with very vested interests in seeing more new roads built.

The Transportation Coalition press release is below.

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The Hawk option: No gas tax hike, just send sales tax money to roads

Two top House Republican leaders on Wednesday countered Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed gas tax increases with an alternative plan that calls for diverting money from the state’s existing 7 percent sales tax base to fund needed road improvements, reports the Times-Free Press.

“A quarter percent of one percent of those funds [we] would simply allocate to transportation funding needs,” said Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who unveiled the plan at a news conference with Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin.

Haslam’s plan seeks to raise the existing 21.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax by 7 cents and the 18.4 cents diesel tax by 12 cents. He says the hikes are necessary to tackle the state’s estimated $10.5 billion backlog of nearly 1,000 transportation projects.

Fuel tax increases, the first since 1989, would raise an estimated $227.8 million for state needs and another $117.1 million for cities and counties under statutory sharing provisions.

Other aspects of Haslam’s plan include raising vehicle registration fees and imposing a $100 annual fee on electric vehicles. That raises an additional $51 million for a total of $278.5 million for state projects.

Hawk said his plan is far simpler and involves no tax increase. Diverting a quarter percentage point of Tennessee’s 7 percent sales tax to transportation funding, he said, would provide two-thirds, about $194 million, for state roads and some $95.5 million for cities’ and counties’ combined share.

Note: Over in the Senate, the proposal got a chilly initial reception. Statement from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally below, along with the Hawk press release.

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Haslam’s school bus safety bill doesn’t require seat belts

Gov. Bill Haslam and Rep. JoAnne Favors have dueling approaches to address safety concerns following the Nov. 21 crash of a school bus in Chattanooga in which six Woodmore Elementary School students died, reports the Times-Free Press.

Haslam introduced legislation Wednesday that seeks to address age requirements for school bus drivers as well as mandate new procedures for school systems, bus drivers and companies to follow. (Note: It’s HB322, sponsored by Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, at the administration’s request.)

But the governor’s approach omits a requirement that Favors wants that new school buses have safety belt restraint systems.

Favors, D-Chattanooga, said her bill, which she intends to introduce shortly, would require that after July 1, 2018, that new buses owned, operated or leased by public or private school systems have restraint systems that are federally approved. 

Her intent is to phase in the requirement so that school systems and contract drivers or companies wouldn’t be faced with huge expenses on the front end.

Meanwhile, Favors said she agreed to introduce a bill, filed earlier today, that only addresses new age requirements for drivers and driver backgrounds. That was done at the request of Senate Minority Lee Harris, D-Memphis, Favors said.

The Chattanooga lawmaker said that’s not her seat belt bill and that she won’t be deterred by the governor’s preferred approach that rejects calls for school bus seat belts.

“No, absolutely not,” Favors said. “It’s needed because you do need restraints. I’m hoping it will pass [this year], but if doesn’t it will involve us all in dialogue about this. 

“And,” the representative added, “we’ll just keep doing it until we get it passed.”

Haslam sends $159M road wish list to Trump

The Haslam administration has submitted a seven-item list of priority state road projects totaling $1.16 billion for President Donald Trump’s administration to consider, reports the Times-Free Press.

Tennessee is among states that have offered up such lists of “shovel ready” but unfunded projects to the National Governors Association at the request of Trump’s then-transition team.

…Trump’s request didn’t seek cost estimates but figures provided Wednesday by the Haslam officials to the Times Free Press shows a price tag on the planned improvements of the highway and bridges is projected at $159.4 million. 

Haslam, meanwhile, is in the midst of his own pitching his own transportation and economic program, dubbed the IMPROVE ACT, that would raise an additional $296 million for state transportation, primarily through gas and diesel tax increases, to address 962 projects statewide. 

The state currently has a $6 billion backlog of previously approved projects and $4.5 billion worth of projects with no funding expected for years unless new dollars are forthcoming, Haslam has said.

…The Volunteer State list includes a stretch of U.S. 127 in Cumberland and Fentress counties north of Chattanooga. 

In addition to U.S. 127, other projects on the list being forwarded to the Trump administration are:

* Alcoa Highway – Knox County/Blount County – $183.1 million
* Lamar Avenue – Memphis – $252 million
* I-440 – Nashville – $50 million
* State Route 109 – Wilson County – $18.5 million
* I-40 – Jackson – $66.3 million
* I-69 – Obion County – $236.7 million.

Haslam proposes 7-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike, tax cuts elsewhere

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE – Joined by mayors from across the state and leaders in the manufacturing and trucking industries, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced a comprehensive and strategic plan to cut taxes on food and manufacturing while updating how the state provides Tennesseans the safe and reliable transportation network needed to support future job growth.

The IMPROVE Act, “Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy,” is the first piece of Haslam’s NextTennessee legislative plan, policy proposals aimed at building and sustaining economic growth and the state’s competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans.

“Under the conservative fiscal leadership of the General Assembly and this administration, state government is smaller, $500 million in recurring costs have been cut out of the state’s operating budget, and together we’ve cut taxes by $270 million annually,” Haslam said. “Because we are a smaller, less tax reliant state government, it is time to build on the vision of what the future of Tennessee looks like and requires. This proposal is the next step in the conversation about how we’re going to position the state to address expected growth, maintain Tennessee’s economic momentum and remain competitive as we continue recruiting high quality jobs.”

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Bill would require ‘In God We Trust’ on all TN vehicle license plates

All Tennessee vehicle license plates would bear the slogan “In God we trust” under legislation filed by state Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton.

“Our government was founded on religious belief,” said Sanderson when asked about HB26, which he said was inspired by an Obion County constituent. “I’m not trying to cram anything down anyone’s throat…. There are many gods. We’re not saying Jesus Christ.”

Sanderson said other states, including neighboring Kentucky, have the same slogan on license plates and it’s also the national motto that appears on coins. Kentucky’s motor vehicle licensing department, however, indicates having the phrase on a plate is optional, not required.

As filed, HB26 calls for all registration plates to carry the phrase, though it lets the state use existing supplies of plates until they are all distributed. Tennessee plates now issued can be used for multiple years with only a decal provided to show an annual renewal.

The bill has no Senate sponsor yet, but Sanderson said he anticipates no difficulty in finding one.

Lobbying for state funding of local public transit on the upswing

Mark Cate, former chief of staff for Gov. Bill Haslam and founder of the consulting firm Stones River Group, has registered as lobbyist for the Greater Nashville Regional Council, which represents 13 Middle Tennessee counties and is a partner organization of the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus, reports The Tennessean.

Two others on the Stones River staff are also registered to lobby for the group – Stephen Susano, who joined Cate early in launching Stones River, and Daniel Culbrath, who signed on more recently after serving as top aid to former House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick.

Michael Skipper, president of GNRC, confirmed his group hired Stones River Group on behalf of the mayors caucus to “communicate with the administration and legislature on our needs as they take up the transportation funding issue this session.”

“We are optimistic about the possibilities this year given the growing and widespread interest in finding a solution to traffic and roadway safety problems across our region and the state,” Skipper said.

The mayor’s caucus, which made funding for public transit a top priority when it launched eight years ago, held an executive committee meeting on Tuesday, the same day the Tennessee General Assembly convened for the first day of the 110th session.

Mayors are hoping Haslam and the Republican-controlled legislature will pass local-option legislation that would simply let municipalities and counties dedicate certain types of local tax revenue for transit.

–Along the same lines from The Nashville Business Journal:

The pressure on Gov. Bill Haslam to include transit funding in his yet-to-be-announced transportation legislation continues to mount as another transit coalition launches.

The Tennessee Transit Coalition formally launched today when Jason Spain, executive director of the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, delivered more than 1,000 petitions to the governor’s office from residents asking for transit funding to be included in his overall transportation bill.

Along with the petitions, Spain delivered a letter requesting the governor’s help in funding transit projects that was signed by the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, AARP Tennessee, Tennessee Association of Human Resource Agencies, Tennessee Disability Coalition, Tennessee Public Health Association, Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee and Walk Bike Tennessee.

In the letter, all seven organizations said they plan to be “active participants in legislative activities this session.”


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

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