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Tennessee Gov. Haslam On Infrastructure Plan


The people who are supposed to pay for President Trump's infrastructure plan include our next guest, Bill Haslam is the Republican governor of Tennessee. His state, like all states, is on the hook because the president's plan doesn't have that much money. It's described as a $1.5 trillion plan, but unlike past federal highway bills, the president's notion is to pay only a small percentage with state and local officials picking up the rest. That's not the way that Governor Haslam would like it, although he did turn up at the White House Monday to support the plan, which he considers better than nothing.

BILL HASLAM: First of all, let me say this. As a governor, I am thrilled that they're - somebody in the federal government's finally addressing infrastructure. Second, I personally - I think most governors would say, if we had our druthers, we would druther them. Work with the traditional highway road fund to increase funding through that, which is, you know, one of the primary ways that we fund roads here. We obviously have state taxes, as well as federal taxes. We increased ours last year because the country and the states have a fundamental issue that, as vehicles get better mileage, you pay less in fuel tax to use that road. The road costs more, but you pay less to use it because you get better mileage than you did 20 years ago.

So I think the sense is there's no political will to do that in Washington. I don't hear anybody even talking about that in Congress. And my sense is everybody thinks that's a bridge too far. So that being said, this feels like a good alternative. They're basically promising to match 20 cents on every dollar - new dollar that we invest. We feel like that leaves us well positioned.

INSKEEP: When the Federal Interstate System was founded, the federal government paid 90 percent of the bills and states needed to basically do a copay of about 10 percent, typically. Now you're saying the federal government is offering, at best, 20 percent of the money and saying the states need to come up with 80 percent. Does your state have that kind of extra money?

HASLAM: For us, we passed a new revenue plan so the 20 percent will help. There's also funding for, I think - can't really call them extraordinary projects, but the city of Nashville is looking at a new public transit system which I think will qualify for that to where if they got 20 percent matching funds, I think they would think that was a huge boost to them. So would I rather have the old formula? Sure. But is this better than nothing, which is the status quo we've been in for the last, you know, umpteen years in Washington? I'll take it.

INSKEEP: So suppose this plan becomes law, gets through Congress and you get at least that modest chunk, let's say, of federal money compared to the past. Combined with your state money, how's Tennessee going to be different in 10 years?

HASLAM: Well, I think it will help us address some of our big needs. We have a major - Nashville is a wonderful city, growing in every way. But part of that challenge is to address the public transportation situation. So if they get 20 percent added to that, you have a lot better chance of getting something that attacks the traffic situation and gets more people out of their cars and into some other form of public transportation, which would be good.

We have some major road projects all across the state that are long overdue that would be sped up. One of our dams, Chickamauga, is way overdue for some infrastructure need. So I can go, kind of, section by section through the state and say, here are some big things that we have to do and having the extra 20 percent will just make them happen quicker.

INSKEEP: Governor, as you no doubt are well aware, the United States is in what could be called an economic rivalry with China. There's a question 10 or 20 years from now, who's really going to have the larger economy?

HASLAM: Right.

INSKEEP: And the Chinese have been investing almost to excess or maybe even beyond excess in infrastructure. And you have brand new extremely high-speed trains. And you have brand-new highways. And you have new power grids and other things. Do you look at the Trump administration plan here and say, yeah, this is going to be good enough, we'll be able to keep up?

HASLAM: I wouldn't say it's just about the Trump administration, I'd say Washington in general, there hasn't been an appetite to attack infrastructure in a long time. So I don't know if we are going to keep up. I mean, I've been to China, ridden the trains, been on the highways, et cetera. I don't know how their economics work, quite frankly. I can't quite make the math work when I'm over there. But they're dealing on such a scale, it's hard to compare anyway. But do I feel like the country is making enough investment in infrastructure? The answer is no.

INSKEEP: Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.

HASLAM: It's great to talk with you. Hope to see you again soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.