Thursday, April 27, 2006

Roadbuilders Continue To Flex Political Muscle In Nashville

When we try to “Imagine” a better future, our ambitions are much more down-to-earth than John Lennon’s. We could be content with a world where Tennessee taxpayers are as powerful as roadbuilders.

Over the years, no special interest group has had more free rein over a state budget than the Tennessee Roadbuilders Association has had over the Department of Transportation. No group is more powerful nor more responsible for the sprawl that characterizes the state’s metro areas.

We thought of this again as we read accounts of State Senator Mark Norris’ shots across the bow at Governor Phil Bredesen because the governor had the gall to shift money from the sacred coffers of the state highway fund to pay for other state services.

While Senator Norris is widely known for his thin skin and the perceived personal offenses and personal attacks that result from it, it’s discouraging to see someone who knows better engaging in such obvious political cleverness, acting as if he truly believes that the public is enraged because roadbuilding interests have seen $44 million taken out of TDOT’s budget of $1.7 billion.

It’s reminiscent of his days as a Shelby County commissioner when he, with great fanfare and a dependable façade of gravity, voted against every property tax increase and every new revenue source such as adequate facilities taxes and impact fees. The fact that this was done in spite of the fact that it was his own district, the unincorporated area and towns of Shelby County, which was largely responsible for the fiscal crisis created by sprawl and schools.

Déjà vu

It was always seen as political gamesmanship by Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout – who shared a political party but little else with then-Commissioner Norris – and it was the mayor who told anyone who would listen that Norris was the consummate political opportunist. There was no love lost by Norris either and eventually, the breach became personal, deep and wide.

That’s why Senator Norris’ defense of the powerful roadbuilders lobby in his dispute with Governor Bredesen has such a “déjà vu all over again” feel to it. At both the county and state levels, he has staunchly defended the forces of sprawl and ignored the tax burdens caused by them, all the while standing four square as a proponent for fiscal restraint.

So, what exactly is Governor Bredesen’s sin, in Senator Norris’ view? He’s had the audacity to shift $44 million in highway funds from TDOT’s budget to pay for pre-K and health care programs.

Senator Norris is the latest object lesson in the strange occurrences that take place when someone takes their seat in a state legislator’s chair. Elected to represent constituents from a specific district, so many times, a state legislator then becomes head of a committee and their primary allegiance is to the lobbyists and the industry for which they are supposed to be providing oversight.

For example, Senator Norris is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and suddenly, it’s as if roadbuilding is the most important function of state government, not whether his constituents are better with the services funded by the $44 million shifted in the governor’s budget.

Steaks and Bourbon

But Senator Norris shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. For decades, the Tennessee Roadbuilders Association has been buying steak dinners and copious rivers of bourbon for legislators, and even in today’s more careful environment, the lobbying group has power that is exceeds any group that more precisely represents the interests of average Tennesseeans.

In truth, this controversy isn’t about the money at all. It’s about the real currency of Nashville politics – power and control.

The shift of the money from the highway fund to other services was the first crack in the roadbuilders’ invincibility, and they are working hard to make sure it never happens again and to prove that they are still a power to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, in Senator Norris’ district, apparently, asphalt is king, as more and more green space is covered over, as Hacks Cross Road becomes the newest incarnation of Germantown Road’s misery and as Tennessee Highway 385 spawns a new burst of sprawl that gobbles up land, duplicates infrastructure costs and increases county taxes.

To underscore the single-minded focus of the Roadbuilders Association – to line their own pockets - its iron grip on Nashville politics has made sure that state transportation policy means building more roads, never making investments in mass transit nor alternative modes of travel. Bills to make substantial investments in mass transit have routinely been choken to death by the roadbuilders association without raising a sweat.

Road Rage

This obsession with roads by one of our local senators is even more puzzling in light of the report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group that Memphis is 6th in the U.S. in the number of lanes of highways per capita, contributing to our city’s ranking as the 17th worst city for air pollution from vehicles.

Meanwhile, Shelby County was cited by the Federal Highway Administration for lack of safe alternative forms of transportation such as bike and pedestrian lanes and light rail. Also, the Federal Highway Administration’s recent report on the country’s major bottlenecks doesn’t mention Memphis even once. Rather, it points to I-24 at 440N in Chattanooga and I-40 at I-24 in Nashville as major problem areas.

It would seem to suggest that Memphis has all the roads that it needs. At the same time, we have serious needs in pre-K and health care, so if Governor Bredesen could earmark the $44 million for our community, it would be the best use of highway money we’ve gotten lately.


Larry said...

I have a better idea ... reduce the gas tax!

The gas tax is for construction and maintenance of roads ... If it isn't going to be used for that, then reduce the tax!

At a minimum, use it for some transportation related item ... like buying electric buses ... or reconfiguring Broad Street and Summer Avenue. But not for pre-K or healthcare.

You're just plain wrong and out in left field on this one.

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry: Since it's not being used for buying electric buses, reconfiguring Broad to make it commercially viable, etc., it's already a corrupted tax, regardless of its stated purpose. And believe me, when the gas tax is proportionately distributed to various cities and counties, it's spent on a lot of things besides construction and maintenance of roads. SCM

Anonymous said...

Why is it that the gas tax is the only tax on the books that people like Larry think are untouchable except for its original purpose? There are all kinds of taxes that are used to fund services that have no relationship to the source of the tax. It's time that the gas tax quit getting its special treatment just because the industry can pay for the big-name lobbyists.

Larry said...

If it is a "corrupted tax", then get rid of it! You're advocating a further corruption of the intent of the gas. Two wrongs don't make a right!

You're just wrong on this one. Bredesen has his hand in the cookie jar and instead of telling him no, you want to fatten him up.

Anon 9:22 ... Tell me what other taxes are being corrupted in such a manner and I will advocate that the corruption of the tax end.

BTW, I think the state did chip to help buy the electric buses for Chattanooga.

When a tax or fee is set up for a specific purpose ... such as road construction/maintenance ... then it should be used for that purpose or reduced or ended.

Your call to corrupt the tax to fund social programs is unacceptable.

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry: The tax is already corrupted by the control that a single industry has over its use and in making sure that it is not used for the broadest possible transportation agenda, rather for their own narrow interests. There's no reason that the roadbuilding industry should have a stranglehold on these revenues, since it's us consumers who are paying for it. And since it's us, and our road network is already one of the biggest in this part of the world, we think our taxes should be spent on something that benefits Memphis. We have no problem in eliminating the tax, but if you want to hear the roadbuilding industry howl, try cutting off the Golden Goose. SCM

Smart City Consulting said...

We're not sure how this fattens up Bredesen. The reason he had to take part of these revenues was because of the budgetary mess left by Sundquist, so we're willing to cut him some slack, because the budget problems of state government are not nearly solved.

Anonymous said...

Larry: Did the state chip in for the electric buses from highway funds? There's no reason that this money isn't used for purposes like this. As for taxes, it's my opinion that the auto rental surcharge, the beer tax, liquor by the drink tax, some of the professional privilege taxes, oil and tire taxes, tobacco taxes, and some others are much broader than the purposes when they were passed. If those can be modified, why is the highway fund money so untouchable?

mike said...

I seem to recall that when Sundquist was facing his own budgetary mess he tried to remove some funds from TDOT's $1 billion bank account. He *was told no* by (IIRC) Chip Saltzman. That's right, the employee told the governor he couldn't have the money!

And what about Shelby's "temporary" wheel tax? Wasn't it supposed to be only to fund education, but was then doubled and the "extra" funds sent into the County's general fund?

I have to admit to being amused at SMC and Anon. Y'all seem to think that a tax can't be too high. Is it raising more than we can spend? Then let's spend it elsewhere! I have to say watching y'all recoil at the idea of lowering taxes tells me a lot about your thinking.

What Bredesen is doing is making a one-time raid on other funds to pay for continuing programs. That's just very bad governing. It's a set-up for big problems down the road

Lowering the gas tax slightly would be a very good idea. It will still generate a lot of money for TDOT, but the public relations value for Bredesen would be enormous. It's a lesson he didn't learn when Georgia took their "gas tax holiday" back during the Katrina-related gas price spike.

Heck, Bredesen could lower the state sales tax by 1/2 percent and *still generate a tax revenue surplus*! Two tax decreases in one year would assure his re-election. And, again, it tells me everything I want to know about Bredesen and Nashville that the idea hasn't even been floated.

Smart City Consulting said...

This is one tough room. We're not arguing about whether the tax is too high or not. Maybe we didn't make this clear enough. We're trying to discuss how a single industry is allowed to dictate government policy and the use of our money. As far as we're concerned, the state could eliminate all gas taxes, etc., for several years until TDOT spends all its excess funds and then scale back the funding to something reasonable. Too many roads are being declared state roads (and therefore are the state's responsibility to maintain, widen, etc.) for political reasons, as opposed to some coherent transportation policy for the state.

mike said...

I would agree there. Too many roads are being built simply because TDOT has the funds and some politician has the will (and the votes).

The solution is obvious, and it's a mystery to me why so many can't see it. Strangle the hose of money. If TDOT is piling up huge stacks of money, then something is out of whack. That something is the tax rate. Lower it until TDOT has a more balanced flow of revenue!

But to what degree do we keep highways and major local roads a county's bailiwick? Especially in our highly mobile age, where a single city can encompass four or five counties?

I sometimes think folks like SMC and the New Urbanists have a very 19th century view of cities, where roads to other parts of the world sort of wander off into the woods and the demarcation between "city" and "rural" is clear and sharp. Where cities were islands with everyone stacked up high and tight, Where public transport only had to connect a relative handful of communities, and folks didn't mind walking as much.

It's not that world any more.

Larry said...

I went to a briefing by TDOT at the MATA offices downtown (Central Station) last Fall. They claimed they had barely enough money for the current projects and maintenance. To take on new projects (like a Memphis-Bristol rail line) they would need a hike in the gas tax. The were advocating a percentage tax ... in essence a sales tax ... so they would get more money as the price of gasoline increased!

They also weren't anticipating the governor grabbing the TDOT funds again.

What do you mean that the budget problems aren't solved? The state has been running a surplus! In fact, Mae Beavers had a very reasonable way to eliminate the sales tax on food ... reduce it 1/2 percent a year which could easily be absorbed by the GROWTH in revenue. But she got little support because it didn't involve RAISING a tax like the tobacco tax.

Maybe the "budget problems" aren't solved for you simply because you don't have enough money for your socialist programs but you just won't be happy until there is a state income tax.

Anon., it is my understanding that the gas tax goes into the TDOT's budget and they spend it. It is their largest source of revenue. I know from talking to TDOT officials that revenues from gas taxes goes to other transportation needs besides roads (such as mass transit). While one could argue that this is a misappropriation, one could also argue that every person who uses mass transit is one less person on the road for the people who pay the gas tax to contend with. In any case, at least it is transportation related.

I don't think any of the other taxes you mentioned have a dedicated purpose. They go into the general revenue. The gas tax does have a dedicated purpose - tranportation.

Tennessee is pretty much a pay-as-you-go state for transportation projects. So if you divert funds from the gas tax not only might a bridge repair be delayed, but money for a mass transit project might be cut.

My whole point is that if the funds should, at a minimum, be used for transportation projects. If the tax is generating more funds than are needed (which isn't the case according to TDOT), then reduce the tax. Don't corrupt it for socialist programs.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: You're right - it's not that world anymore. But with the future of gas prices assured, it may well be again. The development patterns of this nation - and we're not blind New Urbanists, by the way - are simply unsustainable, financially and competitively. In truth, transportation and so many other issues should be addressed from a regional perspective, and that's what the MPO is supposed to be doing. SCM

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry: We wouldn't disagree with TDOT money being restricted for "transportation" projects if the roadbuilding lobby hadn't killed off every attempt to broaden transportation to make it include serious mass transit solutions. There's a difference between the federal money being spent by TDOT for some mass transit projects, and the sacred gas tax revenues that are always the province of the industry and used for more roads and highways. Open up the uses to get people into mass transit, particularly light rail as is being done in Denver, and we're all for it. But we're definitely tired of a special interest telling the rest of us how our taxes ought to be spent when it comes to transportation. SCM

Senator said...

Thanks for paying attention to the budget and transportation issues raised last week. I have enjoyed reading the comments.

The Senate Transportation Committee, which I now chair, is charged with responsibility for reviewing and revising the transportation budget submitted by the administration for the entire state each year. Transportation is about much more than roads. It includes public transportation, rivers, rail, aviation, greenways and other environmental enhancements, and the state’s ability to allocate funds sufficient to match federal funds related to them.

We are responsible to Tennesseans from all 95 counties not just Shelby. After many meetings throughout the months of March and April, we completed the budgeting process last week including consideration of the Department of Transportation’s long range plan. The Committee’s recommendations and adjustments have been referred to the Finance Committee which will consider them and report to the full Senate during the next several weeks.

By a bi-partisan vote of 7-1, the Transportation Committee approved an amendment recommending an end next year to the practice of using dedicated transportation funds derived from the state gas tax for purposes unrelated to transportation. That practice has resulted in the diversion of about $217 million dollars to other programs so far. The governor proposes to take more than an additional $43 million next year. A surplus in other budgeted revenues is anticipated at the end of the current fiscal year which should obviate the need to continue diverting gas tax revenues from the road fund.

In addition to the projected state surplus, there are four primary reasons for this year’s recommendation against continuing this practice: the unprecedented and unanticipated rescission by the federal government this year of more than $70 million from the transportation budget; the federal government’s additional reduction in funding for public transportation; the shortfall in addressing infrastructure needs across our state as reported by the bipartisan Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR); and the overall decline in gas tax revenues this year. Given the projected state surplus in other areas, these losses could be offset with little adverse effect if the diversion were eliminated next fiscal year rather than in three years as the governor himself proposes.

Media coverage arose when the governor recently gave a speech in which he said the Transportation Committee was trying to “add” money to the budget. This is untrue, and I reponded on behalf of the Committee to set the record straight concerning the allocation of dedicated funds and restoration of them for their intended purpose.

As we are in the midst of debating the budget, similar debate is taking place in other committes concerning the administration’s proposed use of other reserves (like TennCare reserves) for different purposes. It is part of the process, and it is appropriate
to debate these issues under our system of checks and balances between separate, but equal, branches of government. Indeed, it is the very process which gives purpose to your blog and those who comment there all of whose opinions I appreciate.

As to your personal comments about my skin, it has grown thicker. That, of course, began when the true defenders of sprawl worked against my efforts as county commissioner from 1997 through 2000 to pass my Truth in Land Use and Sustainable Growth Resolution. After putting the issue of impact fees on the table, sponsoring the moratorium against development along Houston Levee Road and Highway 64, and calling for a comprehensive revision to the entire county zoning ordinance (which is finally under way), I was ultimately successful in adopting the Gray’s Creek Plan, designating significant areas of the county “rural” outside municipal urban growth boundaries, and adopting residential corridors, cluster zoning to protect open space, restrictions against filling in flood plains, and the requirement of posting public notices on proposed development sites in the county. Indeed, I earned the enmity of the previous mayor for these efforts and those designed to slow the rate of borrowing and mounting debt which worked against those efforts. It was not the Homebuilders, but the Sierra Club and the American Planning Association, who saw fit to honor me with recognition for my efforts at that time.

I now chair the Senate Transportation Committee, not the Shelby County Transportation Committee. The parochial tendencies of some in the urban area of Shelby County sometimes make it difficult for the members of its legislative delegation in Nashville who have to work with others from elsewhere in the state. Notwithstanding my responsibilities as Chairman of a standing committee, of all the Shelby County members, I am the only legislator whose own district covers more than just Shelby County. In fact, I represent nearly the entire west coast of the state, and I can assure you there are many citizens in those rural areas who feel they do need the access that roads provide; county governments whose road departments require restoration of funding diverted by the administration; and the disadvantaged who may lose their jobs without the public transportation which may otherwise be lost next year.

There was no “Smart City” back when I was a commissioner. Now that there is, perhaps you could work with me to implement local ordinances recognizing Transfers of Development Rights (TDR’s). You may be unaware that, several years ago, I sponsored and passed the state legislation which enables local governments to encourage urban infill development in exchange for conservation easements protecting rural open space. That would be a constructive endeavor.

Smart City Consulting said...

Senator: We are indeed grateful to you for taking the time to respond. SCM

Anonymous said...

I tuned into this site after reading the excerpt in Sunday's CA... Where were you in the 1990s? Not in Shelby County if you think Rout was anti-sprawl and Norris was pro. Norris took a lot of bullets from the sprawl interests and from Rout's borrowing machine. He should wear the Rout comments as a badge of honor.

Smart City should be more aware of who its real allies are in the quest for better planning and smart-growth initiatives. You've mis-read Norris entirely.

Anonymous said...

While I'm tempted to agree with anything Sen. Norris says because if the prior mayor disagreed with him, that's enough for me, since that's the guy who gave us this insurmountable county debt. But if Norris really wants to help, why doesn't he make sure that the state funds mass transit enough to make our local bus system usable. People in his district can't even get downtown with the present service.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous, We said nothing about Jim Rout, period, but if there's a poster boy for sprawl, it's probably him. As for Senator Norris, our point is that he's in a position to do something about this in an assertive way, and he could start by broadening the use of gas funds to get people off the road and into alternative forms of transportation and mass transit rather than building more and more roads to enrich roadbuilders. Every one can talk about theories, philosophies and lost causes, but he's in a position to do something. If we didn't think he was entirely capable of it, we wouldn't be frustrated. SCM

Anonymous said...

This is an issue from border to border. In east Tennessee for instance a powerful roadbuilder owns significant property in Gatlinburg/Townsend (where sundquist retired) area. Three road projects were ok'd during Sundquist term to seemingly funnel traffic to that region. Exploding land prices even more. We have a now $600 million Knox bypass only diverting 9% of traffic.

Anonymous said...

If you are interested into some differently evolving approches to road development check this Wired Magazine article.

Page 2 is of particular interest.