Tennessee Group Lobbies for All Infrastructure Needs

Wed February 01, 2006 - Southeast Edition
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NASHVILLE, TN (AP) State transportation officials for years fought the perception that Tennessee’s transportation interests were controlled by contractors who build roads, with little regard for other transportation modes, such as waterways, rail and aviation.

A new statewide organization is lobbying for the state’s entire infrastructure system — from the state’s transportation modes to dams, air quality and sewer systems. The Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance (TIA) formed last year, with business leaders, governmental officials, community leaders making up its membership.

“Transportation is no more important to the alliance than other parts of the state’s infrastructure,” TIA Spokesman Rob Ikard said. “The alliance is looking at infrastructure as a broad category.

TIA considers itself more of a grassroots organization than other similar groups, such as the Tennessee Road Builders Association, which is made up mostly of businesses.

Kent Starwalt, executive vice president of the Tennessee Road Builders Association, said while adequately funding the state’s transportation needs is a top priority, infrastructure as a whole is important to the group’s membership.

“We certainly have a lot of construction companies and contractors who have an interest in all infrastructure projects,” he said.

Both groups are calling for adequate funding of the state’s transportation and infrastructure needs.

TIA, in a letter to Tennessee lawmakers, cited a recently released study by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations that says $24.4 billion will be needed over the next 2.5 years to fully fund Tennessee’s infrastructure needs.

At current funding levels, only $10.1 billion of that need will be met, the study says.

“This is the first time they’ve tried to identify dedicated funding,” Ikard said. “As far as our organization is concerned, this constitutes a crisis. Pretty soon we’ll find ourselves in an untenable situation.”

State Rep. Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, agreed there’s a need for more funding at the state level for infrastructure.

Tennessee lost a lot of money meant for transportation and infrastructure when in 2003, Gov. Phil Bredesen rerouted $65 million of the state’s dedicated gas tax to the state’s general fund — an action that required rewriting of state law and one that has been repeated every year since, Pinion said.

This year, only $55 million of the gas tax is expected to go to the general fund.

“It is my hope that we stop that completely and go back to where we were, where the gas tax goes back to being a user fee,” Pinion said. “My hope is that we can restore the transportation money this year and get it back to pay for the roads and rail and the transportation needs.”

TIA isn’t suggesting any specific source of extra funding, only that there is a need for it, Ikard said.

Pinion said he’s talked with members of the TIA before, but added they haven’t been seen much around Capitol Hill and Legislative Plaza — the typical hangout of many officials lobbying for legislative support.

Ikard said TIA spent much of 2005 expanding its membership, but will be actively engaged with the General Assembly during this year’s session.

The Road Builders Association, which already has a large presence at the state Capitol, also is a supporter of using the gas tax to pay for improvements to transportation.

“If there is a need out there, we want it to be met,” TRBA Executive Vice President Kent Starwalt said. “Typically we have been supportive of the gas tax, because it is a user fee. If you’re using it, you’re paying for it. If you’re not using it, you’re not paying for it.”