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Commissioner Nicely: Guest Editorial on Tolling

Tuesday, April 10, 2007 | 07:00pm

Guest Editorial for The Tennessean
April 5, 2007

Commissioner Gerald F. Nicely, TDOT

It is no surprise to the traveling public that congestion is a growing issue across Tennessee. With congestion comes the need to make more transportation improvements to our existing system which, of course, requires revenue. TDOT’s recently published Long Range Transportation Plan concluded that the state of Tennessee needs to explore all alternatives regarding funding sources.

As with other states, Tennessee is struggling to meet the maintenance demands of an aging transportation infrastructure. There are currently two primary sources of revenue for the department–fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. These are failing to keep pace with annual double digit percentage construction cost increases of the past few years. Federal dollars for transportation have also fallen well below expectations. In fact, over $150 million in federal funds authorized for Tennessee have been “rescinded” within the past year as Congress struggles to deal with budgetary problems at the national level.

An option currently being considered as a possible revenue source is the use of tolling. Currently 26 states have tolling as a possible financial resource. It is one Tennessee needs to include in our “tool kit” of potential revenue sources. This approach is not a magic bullet to solve all of our revenue needs, but it might well be a solution in certain cases. TDOT staff has been working on answering several questions regarding the possible use of tolling. One clear requirement would be that tolling could be used only to create new capacity. Tolls would not be imposed on existing roadways or bridges. A second prerequisite would be that free alternative routes would have to be available. Motorists would always have the option taking a non-tolled facility. Finally, you can be assured that no toll project would be implemented without extensive pubic input and the strong support of affected local governments.

In my view, the department needs to have the authority to include this option as a means of implementing certain projects. Granted it is a complex issue that requires careful consideration by the people of Tennessee and their elected leaders. Legislation currently before the General Assembly, the Tennessee Tollway Act, sponsored by Representative Philip Pinion and Senator Diane Black would make this option available.

Two obvious advantages can be cited for allowing tolling of selected new roadways or bridges: 1) more revenue from our traditional sources could be devoted to the maintenance of existing infrastructure, and 2) for projects selected for tolling, the time frame for project development would be greatly reduced from the traditional “pay as you go” approach used in Tennessee.

Over the next several months as our legislative and administrative processes move forward on this important issue, you will be asked for your opinion. You’re encouraged to get involved, ask questions and make your voice heard as part of the debate on this and other matters affecting the future of Tennessee’s transportation system.

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