By Collin Brooks
Senator Rusty Crowe took time Friday afternoon to hold a public meeting about the local impact of the IMPROVE Act, a piece of legislation that was recently passed with the goal of improving infrastructure throughout the Volunteer State.
He said it was important to hold the meeting because some misinformation was going around that local counties, including Washington County, would not receive any funding in the first three years of this legislation
“We are getting three to four times more than we have ever gotten for our counties before, so it is kind of misleading,” said Crowe, who dubbed the tax increase as a user fee, as people that use the roads will pay the extra tax through gasoline. “They didn’t mean to mislead, and the media didn’t mean to mislead. It just is what it is, when you do projects in phases.”
Crowe brought together representatives from Washington, Carter and Unicoi Counties, along with Tennessee Department of Transportation officials and the Highway Department Superintendents for the three counties. The addition to the fuel tax will add 6 cents on gasoline and 10 cents on diesel over a three year period of time. It will start July 1, with a 4-cent increase to gasoline prices with two additional pennies coming over the next two years. Diesel gas will rise four cents on July 1 and three cents over the next two years, the tax is not indexed, so it cannot raise due the economy
Steve Borden, Director/Assistant Chief Engineer of Region 1 for TDOT, said that local governments would be receiving about a 3.8 time boost of funding to their highway departments.
Between now and 2030, 19 projects will be completed, under construction or under contract in Washington County for a total of $119,095,676. For the 2018 fiscal year Washington County will receive a $663,433 boost in state aid for roads that qualify. The county will also receive another $943,000, while Johnson City will take in an additional $745,000 this fiscal year.
Borden said the reason that counties like Washington and Unicoi County were left off of the first list of three year projects was due to what he called peaks and valleys in areas for projects. He said that in 2015-2016 Washington, Unicoi and Carter County had $110 million worth of projects under contract that the state was closing out.
A three-year plan for bridges across the state is set to be released in the next month, according to Borden and he said that may include projects in Northeast Tennessee and will come from a separate fund. Another set of projects that aren’t included in the numbers released are resurfacing projects by the state. Currently, a major resurfacing project is being done on I-26 from Sullivan County to the Boones Creek exit. Next summer, the state will finish that project, resurfacing Boones Creek to University Parkway.
One large project that is in the works currently in Washington County will be on I-26 at Boones Creek exit 17, which will be developed into a diverging diamond pattern, similar to the Kodak exit 407 on I-40 to get to Pigeon Forge and only the third in the state. That design will cut down on their need to purchase land for right of way which could also expedite the process and a public meeting will be held later this summer.
Borden said the diverging diamond design has significantly decreased accident risks and has worked extremely well at the 407 exit and a location in Alcoa.
That project is currently in the environmental phase — which is the first phase of a project and currently in the TDOT’s program they don’t set aside construction dollars when they don’t have their environmental phase completed.
Borden said TDOT funds their projects in phases so they will only take out a percentage of the total amount of a project to get the first phase completed. And as they get deeper into the project they request more money.
Crowe said those projects alone, prove the errors in some of the information that has been surfacing.
“The zero (projects) doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of work getting ready to happen, it just matters what phase your in,” Crowe said.
The 28-year politician said that he supported the tax, which is something that has been rare during his tenure.
“We pay for the privilege of using our roads and it’s not an easy prospect,” Crowe said.
He mentioned that he has been hearing complaints from a lot of people, due to the confusion that has been dusted up about the bill.
He noted that the road system will now be able to fund their pay-as-you-go method, that won’t hinder the state like it has Texas — who currently has $21 billion worth of infrastructure debt.
“We haven’t done anything (for roads) in 30 years,” said Crowe. “It seemed to be the most consecutive, safest and most reliable approach, in times of providing our future for us, our kids and our infrastructure that I could put together.
“So I hope that my constituents aren’t upset with me and I hope they understand that we try to do the right thing and that some votes aren’t easy. This is one that took a lot of figuring out.”
The senator mentioned that he had received about 58-60 percent of positive feedback, that thanked him for voting for the tax.
Washington County Highway Superintendent Johnny Deakins said that he was thrilled with the money that his department will receive from the state as they will have 12 bridges that will be completed by the state.
Deakins said that will help immensely with their situation, as they were only able to address their bridge problems once every six years as they had to accumulate the $52,000 they use to receive from the state.
He said the next big road project for the county will be widening a portion of Highland Church Road, so that it will be able to accommodate the extra traffic from the new Boones Creek Schools.
Senator Crowe mentioned that normally he wouldn’t vote for taxes and his past reflects that. He noted that that the state would have an income tax if it wasn’t for him, because Governor Don Sundquist approached him asking him to vote for the income tax during his administration and Crowe said he just couldn’t do it.
“I said, ‘Governor, I’m sorry, it’s not the right thing to do. It will keep businesses from coming to Tennessee, we don’t need it at this point. It’s not constitutional.’ So I said no, and when I said no he fired me from the university and I went on and found another job somewhere else. But I felt like I did the right thing. So I am always going to try to do what’s right for you and you know that. You know me well.”
But he explained his vote even more by saying that 30 percent of the people paying for the roads will be tourist driving through the state and about 50 percent of diesel will also be paid for from patrons outside of Tennessee. He also noted that at the end of three years after the plan is fully implemented, they will have reduced $500 million in taxes and increased your tax by $350 million. “So we took off more than we put on,” Crowe said.