- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam says proceeds from a potential fuel tax hike to increase Tennessee’s transportation funding should not be limited to road projects.

The Republican governor told The Associated Press in a recent interview that public transit needs to be part of the equation, especially amid the increasing gridlock in Nashville and surrounding Middle Tennessee counties.

“Any logical person who’s been around Nashville the last three or four years would say what we’re doing now isn’t going to work long term,” Haslam said. “Forget where you are on the political spectrum from liberal to conservative - that’s just a reality.”

The governor acknowledged that big transit projects are made more difficult because “federal money has dried up,” and the state doesn’t have as many resources to address the issue. Tennessee hasn’t raised its gas tax in 25 years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 2.3 million people living in the state’s six metropolitan statistical areas work outside the home. Of those, 1.9 million, or 84 percent, drive to work alone. About 9 percent carpool, and just 1 percent regularly take public transit to work.

The Nashville area has about 704,500 commuters who drive alone, followed by Memphis area with 502,500. Next are Knoxville with 314,500 and Chattanooga with 203,000. The Kingsport area has about 105,500 solo drivers, and Clarksville about 94,500.

Nashville’s average commute time of 26.5 minutes is alone among the state’s metro areas in ranking higher than the national average of 25.8 minutes. But commuter data illustrates the difficulty in promoting alternatives to driving alone, which averages about 26 minutes, as carpooling takes about 4 minutes longer and public transportation averages 22 minutes longer.

Congestion is expected to become a more pressing problem as population grows. Among 26 Tennessee cities tracked by Census, only three - Newport, Martin and Union City - are projected to lose population over the next five years.

Nashville’s population is projected to grow by 135,000 people by 2020. The Memphis area is expected to add 36,000 residents over that period, followed by 27,000 in Knoxville and 21,000 in Chattanooga.

The examination of traffic congestion throughout Tennessee is part a yearlong series of stories by The Associated Press focused on the state of the nation’s infrastructure. Without adequate planning, U.S. transportation officials warn that congestion will worsen in the next three decades as the nation’s population rises by an expected 70 million people, making gridlock the norm in many cities and suburbs.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in January abandoned his $175 million proposal to create 7-mile bus rapid transit route called the Amp that would have connected the eastern and western sections of the city through downtown on designated lanes.

The proposal drew vocal opposition from some businesses and residents in the affluent areas on the western section of the route, and the term-limited mayor ultimately decided to punt the project to his successor after he leaves office this year.

Although mayoral candidates seem to be in widespread agreement that Nashville needs to do something to address traffic, there’s little consensus on specific solutions.

Haslam said the state also has to take a role in seeking relief from gridlock.

“For Nashville to keep going the direction it is, there’s going to have to be some transportation alternative,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but that’s a reality.”

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