Once again, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has another good idea that’s being shot down by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and the governor’s own political party.

This time, it’s his proposal to raise the gas tax to pay for highway repairs, and miracle of miracles, the governor – former mayor of Knoxville – even dared to say that some of the money should be spent on public transit.  Now, that’s an idea that’s long overdue.

It’s also about as likely to be supported by our Tea Party Legislature as common sense gun laws.  Come to think of it, if they lack the moral center to provide health care for almost 300,000 of their fellow Tennesseans with expansion of Medicaid, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which they will do anything that helps those urban dwellers who they especially villainize.

It matters little for these legislators – backed in their opposition by the never-ending interference by the Koch brothers in other people’s affairs – that the Tennessee gas tax has not been increased in 25 years or that cars’ energy efficiency has increased mileage by 33 percent.

It would be exciting to live in a state where public transit received as much concern as perpetuating a car-centric culture.  In the midst of the debate about the gas tax – which Mr. Norris pronounced as DOA – the use of gas taxes to pay for state services like education by governors dating back to Don Sundquist is resurrected as the source of all problems and treated as if the gas taxes are sacrosanct because the asphalt lobby in Nashville says they are.

After all, one of the main reasons that we have such highway repair needs is that the asphalt lobby led the campaign for more and more lanes of highways (especially the bypasses that devastated the economies of so many cities across the state), aided and abetted by transportation planners at the state level and by local MPOs like ours.

Despite the dramatic increase in highways, they were routinely approved without any consideration, much less a calculation, of the life cycle costs that were being heaped upon state government in the future (and local government, come to think of it), a fact ignored by the cheerleaders for the roadbuilders.

So, even today, public transit is an afterthought in transportation planning, and as a result, State of Tennessee ranks near the bottom of states for per capita spending.  Then again, our MPO and our own local governments have failed to make public transit a priority or to lobby Tennessee Department of Transportation to appropriate some of its discretionary spending for public transit here.

It’s no wonder that in the Memphis metro, only 26% of all jobs are reachable by transit within 90 minutes, while legislators in Nashville wonder what they can do to lower the unemployment rate.

The following is a blog post from April 27, 2006, which proves the point that in Nashville, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

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, which included the unincorporated area and towns of Shelby County, that 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 damages the major city at our region’s center.

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 choked 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.