Borrowing for roads nearly irresponsible

August 9, 2008

Borrowing for roads nearly irresponsible

By STATE SEN. JIM TRACY

Paying for the construction of state highways is a great concern for states across the nation.

State governments are trying to strike a balance of keeping up with economic development and not running up debt for future generations. Tennessee is not exempt from this conversation. As the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, it is my view that Tennessee should remain a pay-as-you-go state when it comes to paying for the construction of state highways.

State transportation revenues nationwide are not keeping pace with escalating road construction costs. Add into this equation higher gas costs that have slowed revenues from weakening sales and a declining federal funding source, and it creates the perfect storm for transportation needs. This is why all states face major shortfalls between revenue expected from existing sources and projected needs to both maintain existing infrastructure and to build new projects.

As a past president of my local Chamber of Commerce, I am well aware of the tremendous needs of economic development, especially in rural areas. The first thing industries
consider when looking at potential relocation or expansion of their business is the infrastructure. If a community has good roads, a quality education system, and a first-rate public-works system, the chances of landing a new industry are greatly increased.

I fully support economic development efforts in Tennessee and have voted as such as state senator. However, we must balance economic development needs with the need to pay our bills as they come due. This means we cannot start putting Tennessee’s road construction on a credit card. Some believe that we can borrow money now for road projects and pay for them later. That is a dangerous policy and borders on financial irresponsibility.

Federal funds reneged upon

Tennessee is financially sound because we don’t operate like Washington, running up a tab that we can’t pay or making promises that we can’t fulfill. In fact, the federal government promised Tennessee its fair share of dollars for building roads. What has come of that promise? In the past four years, the federal government has rescinded more than $200 million from Tennessee, tax dollars that will not go to building or expanding our roads.

This loss of funding presents a significant challenge to ensure Tennessee is meeting the growing needs of its citizens. In the last General Assembly, we adopted legislation to fully
examine the health of Tennessee’s transportation system and explore options that may be available for improvements. The group will begin work in the fall and report back to the 106th General Assembly. I look forward to working with this group and helping to come up with solutions on how we can meet our future transportation needs.

While it may be tempting to reconsider our policy of paying for road construction as it comes due, Tennessee must remain fiscally responsible. Tennessee must continue as a pay-as-you-go state. Now is not the time to adopt the Washington-style politics of making promises we may not be able to keep.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

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