TCHOA , TCSA + Affiliates Present 'Infrastructure Champion' Award to Key Legislative Leaders
The special award was awarded to key legislative partners for their “shepherding passage of the Transportation Modernization Act of 2023.”
The Tennessee County Highway Officials Association (TCHOA), Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA), Tennessee County Commissioners Association (TCCA), and the Association of County Mayors (ACM) recently presented TDOT Commissioner Butch Eley, TN Representative Dan Howell, and TN Senator Becky Massey with the 'Infrastructure Champion' Award, in recognition of their duty to public service. These three individuals worked diligently to make sure the Transportation Modernization Act (TMA) of 2023 was passed by the General Assembly with language, funding, and programs to serve both state and local roadways and infrastructure throughout the state. This historic piece of legislation awarded $300 million to counties across the state in an unprecedented move to update, expand, and modernize county highways that will better serve Tennesseans.
TCSA recently caught up with TCHOA Director Brett Howell to discuss the significance of the 'Infrastructure Champion' award, as well as how the Transportation Modernization Act of 2023 can fundamentally transform Tennessee's infrastructure as we currently know it.
TCSA: What brought about the idea for such a unique award to Chairwoman Massey, Commissioner Eley, and Representative Howell?
Brett Howell (BH): From time to time, the county associations have presented this type of award to legislative leaders and members of the Administration who have a heart-felt desire to positively impact county governments throughout Tennessee. This team of individuals certainly meet that criteria, namely through their “shepherding passage of the Transportation Modernization Act of 2023.” Not only did this monumental act proposed by the Governor provide $300 million in one-time funding for key connector roads at the county level, it also addressed a long-term solution to waning operational funds for county highway departments by sharing new state registration fees on electric vehicles with local governments.
How critical was the partnership between state legislators and the county associations in this bill’s passage?
Associations were able to assist throughout the process, including early conversations with TDOT Commissioner Eley, about the concerns and fiscal needs counties have at the local level. Tennessee’s transportation system includes state and local roads and bridges, and these leaders understood that from day one. They actively sought our input, and we appreciate their recognition of that important state-county partnership in serving more than 7 million Tennesseans.
The Infrastructure Champion Award seems pretty special. Does TCHOA or affiliate county associations often give out these types of awards?
I believe this is simple but effective. We genuinely mean “thank you” when we do this, and we have every time we have presented such an award in the past. These are for leaders who advocate for major positive changes at the county level. It is our way, however insignificant it might be, to share our gratitude for a job well done. County associations are not able to do a lot to recognize legislators and state leaders because of ethics laws. But what we can do is offer this simple means of acknowledging their hard work.
Senator Massey, Representative Howell and TDOT Commissioner Eley are perfect examples of champions deserving such an award. This act would not have happened without the passion and hard work they put into it long before the original language was introduced.
Why did TCHOA wish to lead the support effort of the Transportation Modernization Act, at least from the counties’ perspective?
County highway departments had the most to win and potentially lose in this process. The fiscal constraints and pitfalls related to fuel tax collections and funding transportation infrastructure is nothing new to us. In fact, our woes mirror those of our bigger sister, TDOT. They face less revenues, we do to. They see inflationary obstacles and supply chain issues, we do to.
I’ll put it in these terms. Every year for the past 2-3 decades, highway departments have been provided their portion of a $21 million State Aid program. On average, the annual county share equals about $200,000. Fast forward to the Transportation Modernization Act of 2023, and the least amount each county receives is more than $2 million. Why does that matter? For the first time in our state’s history, a county highway department will be able to plan its work, ensured that amble funding is there to repave, say, 15-20 miles of connector roads.
That pot of money, once used, goes away and we will have to rely once again on that minimal share of about $200,000 a year. Keep in mind that that average cost for a county to contract to have this work done is more than $125,000 per mile. The funds don’t go very far, so we need to take full advantage of this one-time funding, using it as wisely and effectively as we can. Our hope would be to show the Administration and General Assembly what we are able to do when we can plan our work and then work our plan.
Now, roll all those factors into the total county budget picture. The finances of a county highway department have a direct effect on the fiscal help of a county as well, so county mayors and county commissioners had a vested interest in what was being proposed this session. Local economic investments, for instance, are directly related to the county’s ability to move trucks and employees along local roads on their way to state routes. A significant win like this is a win for the entire county.
This bill also highlights the financial partnership that exists between counties and the state. This Legislature feels strongly that they want to help counties, but they need to know that counties are doing their part to make things better. “Skin in the game” is how many typically describe it. If the state provides assistance to the counties, counties in turn need to provide some sort of matching funds to the pot. The State Aid program does that.
How long did it take the TMA to pass legislation from its conception? Can you give us some details in the actual process that might be helpful for county leaders to know about?
Seven (7) weeks is what it took to get this bill through the legislative process, a timeframe and surprised even seasoned legislators and Administration officials. Once the bill sponsors, Senator Massey and Representative Howell, announced their intent to introduce amended language in the first week of March while county highway superintendents were in town for County Government Day, it moved through the entire committee process each week and wound up on the House and Senate floors just weeks later.
It passed the Senate vote on March 20 and the House on March 30, both on a bipartisan basis.
Throughout that legislative process, county association leaders were meeting with legislators on a daily basis to answer questions about what the new funding could do for their respective districts. We were an active part of helping where we could in passage of this landmark bill.
How do you hope the funds from the Transportation Modernization Act will improve roads and highways in Tennessee?
I could state the obvious and point to the $300 million, or to the new EV funding that will come and help sustain the operations of county highway departments. The funding provided will go a long way towards improve key connector routes at the county level. But as important as those things are, the relationships that were built throughout this process is that piece we will never be able to put a price on.
Being able to run into the TDOT commissioner and his staff and have a quick conversation about our joint needs will be as important to the successes we see across our state as we all work towards a better transportation system. It was renewing those relationships built in 2016 and 2017 with roadbuilders, public transit groups and others when the General Assembly then passed the IMPROVE Act. And it was being able to work even closer with our Transportation Committee chairs, Becky Massey and Dan Howell, as they advocated for our cause and that of the state.
How did TCSA and other affiliate associations help TCHOA in the efforts to get the TMA passed through the General Assembly?
David Connor, Charlie Curtiss, and Anthony Holt were there the entire way, offering their expertise, advice, and voices to passage of this bill. They were meeting legislators that they have known for years, doing what they could to seek support within the General Assembly. They are always great and helping open doors. They understand the importance of this bill and what it means to highway departments and to counties as a whole.