Alexander on Fixing Traffic Jams: Think Big, Think Long Term, Don’t Expect Washington, D.C. to Pay for Too Much of It

Cites as model Tennessee’s 1986 $5.7 billion Better Roads Program, “when our state paid half the cost of building the nation’s best road system with zero debt”

Posted on November 9, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 9, 2016 — Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told Middle Tennessee area local officials today that to fix Nashville’s traffic jams they should “think big, think long term and not expect Washington, D.C. to pay for too much of it.”

“Nashville is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. The region needs a 21st century transportation system to match its growing economy,” Alexander told local officials attending the Cumberland Region Tomorrow’s Power of Ten Summit. “From my experience, I recommend that to fix Nashville’s traffic jams you think big, think long term and don’t expect Washington, D.C. to pay for too much of it.”

“Last year, Congress passed a long-term transportation program, which is something that the state legislature has not been able to do,” the senator said. “The federal program provides an average of $12 billion per year over five years for mass transit and light rail. But Nashville’s share of that will not be nearly enough to pay much of Metro’s $6 billion 25-year transit program, even if the new president proposes a big, new infrastructure plan.”

“That means paying for most of it with state and local dollars, which makes sense anyway. Why send Tennessee dollars to Washington, D.C., take some out for overhead, add some regulations and send what’s left back to Tennessee? Conservatives who believe in the 10th Amendment ought to want to keep our money at home, let local officials use it to meet real needs and pay as you go with zero debt.”

He added, “That’s exactly what Tennessee did 30 years ago. In 1986, I proposed and the legislature enacted a massive $5.7 billion Better Roads Program. It has done more than anything else the state could have done to attract the auto industry, increase family incomes and spread auto jobs throughout the state.”

“In 1986, Tennessee had poor highways and almost no auto jobs,” the senator said. “Automakers told us when they picked locations for new plants the first thing they looked for were intersections of excellent four lane highways. As a result of our 1986 plan, by 2001 truckers named Tennessee’s roads the best in the country and said ‘driving from Tennessee to Arkansas was like driving from heaven to hell.’ Today, we are the leading state for new auto jobs with suppliers in 85 of our 95 counties—because they can transport their auto parts to assembly plants traveling on excellent highways.”

Sen. Alexander said the 1986 program—enacted during his final year as governor – ultimately cost $5.7 billion, more than $12 billion in today’s dollars. He said he had proposed finishing most of the projects within 13 years, but it took 30 years. The state built more than 100 miles of new interstate quality highways that were paid for with 100 percent state funds instead of the usual 90 percent federal, a 10 percent state split. The three quarters of a billion dollars spent to build I-840 south of Nashville was 100 percent state funds. The plan included 312 projects and established a 12-year cycle for resurfacing state roads.

“The Tennessee Department of Transportation estimates that over 30 years, state tax dollars paid for half of the $5.7 billion program,” Alexander said. “We paid for it with a conservative pay as you go policy that saddled Tennesseans with zero road debt. That meant raising the gas tax 4 cents per gallon and the diesel tax 3 cents a gallon.  Three times between 1981 and 1986, I asked the legislature to increase the gas tax. It went from 7 to 16 cents. In 1989, Governor McWherter asked the legislature to add another 4 cents. So it nearly tripled during the 1980’s, and is still below the national average for states.”    

“Because we incurred zero debt, all the money we raised since the 1980’s has gone to maintain or build roads, instead of to pay interest and reduce debt. Compare that with Texas which has more than $20 billion in road debt and New Jersey which has more than $16 billion.

He continued, “Once we set as a goal building the nation’s best road system with new state dollars and zero debt, paying for it was not a major political problem. Because it was a conservative, pay as you go plan that created jobs, every Republican legislator voted for it. No one who voted for it came close to losing an election. One third of the total cost was paid by truckers, one third by tourists and one third by the rest of us who use the roads. Tennesseans did not object to paying the cost of one tank of gasoline a year—about $15-- to improve our roads and attract jobs.”

“I suspect Tennesseans would have the same attitude today. I for one would prefer to pay a little more and have local officials decide what to do with it rather than sit stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 24 waiting for someone in Washington to send me some money from New Jersey or New York to help pay for my local transportation needs.”

Alexander spoke at the Cumberland Region Tomorrow’s annual Power of Ten Regional Summit in Nashville. The event attracts local leaders from the 10 primary counties that are a part of the Middle Tennessee region with the goal of solving issues caused by the area’s population surge.

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