“The problem with this transportation bill is it doesn’t fix any of the inherent problems with the transportation infrastructure system,” Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) said. “There is no modernization component to this legislation.”
Much of the debate centers around the term ‘choice lanes,’ in Governor Bill Lee’s plan. Clemmons, the House Democratic Caucus Chairman, argued the bill simply deletes the definition of ‘toll’ wherever it appears in the law and changes it to ‘user fee.’
“These are toll lanes that he’s creating,” Clemmons said. “[Governor Lee] doesn’t want to call it that because it’s wildly unpopular.”
But Republicans say it’s not a toll road because you have a choice.
“Choice lane is very similar to TSA Precheck,” Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) said. “If you’re flying, you can either go through the free lines through security or you can pay a fee and get Precheck. Then you can go through the fast lane.”
Clemmons pushed the fact that the bill allows private companies to come in and set variable rates for those lanes, meaning private companies have final say over what they cost.
“This law allows them to build toll lanes in rural Tennessee and urban Tennessee and suburban Tennessee. So, no one is going to escape the wrath of these private entities,” Clemmons said. “Once they decide they want to build a toll lane, they can set the rates and decide to charge people what they want on a highway or an interstate.”
But Massey, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, pushed back, saying private money is essential for this plan to work. “It will actually touch and benefit every county in Tennessee,” she said.
There also has been some debate about whether the plan is equitable, as opposed to equal.
It would give each of the four TDOT regions $750 million for road projects, but critics argue Nashville has a significantly higher population and should therefore get a bigger chunk of the change.
Massey disagreed, arguing population doesn’t necessarily give the best estimate.
“Knoxville actually has more traffic, 1,000 more cars a day on that average, than Nashville does. Nashville has more roads because we’re building 840, redoing 440,” she said. “So, should Knoxville get more money than Nashville? I don’t believe it. I think they should be divided equally.”