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Roads rule in Tennessee, from state funding to Tennesseans’ transit preferences

via WPLN

Tennesseans are driving more than ever — in fact, a lot more than residents in most other states. And, according to a new report from nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank ThinkTennessee, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

When it comes to funding Tennessee’s transportation system, the state has a clear priority: roads and highways. Tennessee has constructed over 96,000 miles of roads, and vehicle miles traveled in the state is ever-increasing. In fact, Tennessee ranks in the nation’s top 10 states for vehicle miles traveled per capita.

And because a majority of Tennesseans drive, this can be dangerous.

Traffic fatalities have increased nearly 30% since 2011 — that’s 30 deaths out of every 100.

It’s also expensive, as people have to pay for vehicles and gas. According to AAA, the average cost of car ownership per year is just under $14,000, including ownership, operation and depreciation costs.

Residents have limited other options. Many counties in the state don’t have any fixed-route transit systems. And even the ones that do — like Davidson County — are underperforming nationally.

While counties are authorized to establish a tax to fund transit through a referendum under the state’s IMPROVE Act, no county has done so. In fact, Nashville’s failed 2018 referendum is the only attempt to date.

That leaves transit agencies to rely on a patchwork of federal, state and local funding sources, and on all levels, the funding trails behind the national average.

Tennessee collected an average of $86.1 million from the Federal Transit Administration between 2006 and 2021. The average FTA payment to states during that period was $206 million — more than double Tennessee’s. The state’s contributions to transit are also below the national average, as are local investments. However, local jurisdiction’s inability to pass a referendum and establish a dedicated funding source under the IMPROVE Act has proven to be a barrier to securing greater local funding.

And it’s hard to improve transit without more money.

That’s why ThinkTennessee says the state needs to be thinking about a new way to fund transit — maybe a mileage-based user fee, or maybe financing projects through bonds. Whatever it is, they say the current model — one that is heavily reliant on state gas taxes and lacking dedicated funding streams — is not cutting it.

Cindy Abrams is WPLN’s Midday News Producer. She grew up in Eugene and Portland, Oregon and moved east after graduating from Whitman College. Cindy comes to Nashville from central Virginia, where she covered the courts at Rappahannock News. She was WPLN’s digital news intern in 2021 before joining the station full-time as a newscast and digital producer.
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