Governor Haslam (left) and state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (right) listen to a point made by state Transportation Commissioner John Schoer
Governor Bill Haslam, who is busy tending to one ongoing emergency, the state’s desperate need to expand and repair its infrastructure, seemingly cannot escape from the consequences of another, the apparent epidemic of violent episodes in Tennessee and elsewhere
Accompanied by representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Haslam conferred on Wednesday with a host of local officials on infrastructure projects and needs at the downtown offices of the Chamber of Commerce.
His intent, as he made clear at a post-event press conference, was to raise consciousness about the incapacity of current revenue streams to support the state’s present and future infrastructure requirements.
For weeks the Governor has been floating the idea of raising the state’s gasoline tax, pointing out that new efficiencies in automobile manufacture, coupled with a drop in oil prices, have significantly lowered the amount of money spent by the average motorist on gasoline purchases.
And that has cased a corresponding decline in the generating of tax revenues which have been a basic source of TDOT’s operating fund.
State Commissioner of Transportation John Schoer and TDOT Chief Engineer Paul accompanied Haslam to Memphis, all of them underscoring to representatives of affected local jurisdictions the six- to eight-year lead time required to plan, finance, and execute expansion of the state’s highway network.
Haslam closed the session with an unusually intense statement that the revenue stream to complete such projects has to be augmented somehow — a theme he returned to in his press conference.
“I don’t think people really understand the scope of the problem that we have in Tennessee, the number of places that really need an infrastructure fix,” the governor said, but he said his main effort in touring Tennessee on the matter was to “discuss what the needs are” before specifying a gasoline tax or any other specific solution.
No help was obviously forthcoming from Washington, where a proposal for raising the federal gas tax has been bogged down in disagreement, he said. “The feds have gotten to where they just do extensions. They won’t put together a highway plan,”
But the ongoing spate of violent and fatal incidents, most of them involving gunfire, which had already amended the governor’s itinerary, prompting him to schedule an evening appearance at visitation for the recently slain Memphis Police Department officer Sean Bolton, intervened again as news of a fresh attack in an Antioch movie theater encroached on the press conference.
“We had just gotten over the Chattanooga experience,” Haslam said, alluding to an armed attack by a home-grown Islamic jihadist on military recruiters in the east Tennessee city, resulting in several fatalities “You say, what can we do to stop it?”
Responding to a question as to whether he regretted his signing in the 2015 legislative session of a new gun bill that he had previously expressed concern about, “I’m waiting for more information,” the Governor responded, but he pointed out that the assailant in Antioch had been armed with a knife and “several different weapons,” (including, as it turned out, a pellet gun) and that “if somebody is bent on destruction and doesn’t care what happens to him, there’s a lot of different ways they can do that destruction.