Bill on school bus seat belts clears House panel 9-7

A bill requiring Tennessee school buses to be equipped with seat belts cleared the House Transportation Committee with a 9-7 vote Tuesday amid concerns over costs and other factors. The bill by Rep. JoAnn Favors, D-Chattanooga, (HB395) was prompted by a Nov. 21, 2016, school bus crash that killed six Chattanooga children.

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Judge voids TN billboard regulation law

U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla of Memphis has declared Tennessee’s Billboard Regulation and Control Act unconstitutional, invalidating a law that has governed outdoor advertising in the state since 1972, reports the Commercial Appeal.

The ruling Friday came down on the side of Memphis billboard operator William H. Thomas Jr., who had alleged in a lawsuit that Tennessee Department of Transportation officials violated his constitutional rights in their efforts to remove a sign he constructed at the Interstate 40-240 interchange in East Memphis despite being denied a permit for it.

Although local governments often regulate billboards through zoning ordinances, McCalla’s decision potentially opens up vast areas of the state to unfettered proliferation of outdoor signs along highways. It also could result in a 10 percent cut in federal highway funds to Tennessee because the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 requires states to regulate billboards to federal standards.

The ruling follows a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down portions of an Arizona town’s sign ordinance on free-speech grounds, a case cited by McCalla. With the latest decision, similar litigation is likely to be lodged against other states’ billboard laws, say advocates of controls on outdoor advertising.

“It will also have an impact … far beyond Tennessee,” said William Brinton, an attorney who represented Scenic America, Scenic Tennessee and other groups seeking to preserve the billboard regulation law.

Thomas’ suit attracted allies among limited-government groups such as The Beacon Center of Tennessee, which say that billboard laws, by allowing regulatory exemptions for certain types of messages, impose undue “content-based” regulation of speech.

But advocates of billboard laws say the rules are needed as a means of protecting not just aesthetics but property values and possibly traffic safety.

TDOT bills dead teen for damaging guardrail that killed her

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has apologized to a Loudon County man for sending his dead daughter a bill for nearly $3,000 to replace the guardrail that killed her in a car crash last November, reports The Tennessean.

In addition to refusing to pay the bill, Steven Eimers alleges the model of guardrail end involved in his daughter Hannah’s death is “horribly designed” and dangerous, and that “the culture at TDOT is more concerned with making up catchy slogans than actual safety.”

TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said the bill was the result of “a mistake somewhere in processing,” and that TDOT “greatly apologizes for it.” The Eimers family does not have to pay, and another letter is being sent to explain the error, Nagi said.

Around 5:44 a.m. Nov. 1, Hannah Eimers, 17, was driving her father’s 2000 Volvo S80 on Interstate 75 North near Niota when the car left the road, traveled into the median and hit the end of the guardrail with the driver’s side door, according to a Tennessee Highway Patrol crash report.

Instead of deflecting the car or buckling to absorb the impact, the guardrail end impaled the vehicle, striking Hannah in the head and chest and pushing her into the back seat, according to the report. She died instantly.

The Volvo spun to the right anred “took out approximately 15 to 20 feet of guardrail” before it skidded to a stop…  Four months later, Hannah’s father received a $2,970 bill from TDOT, dated Feb. 24 and addressed to Hannah, for the cost of labor and materials to install 25 feet of guardrail at the scene of the crash.

Eimers said he was “flabbergasted” that TDOT would “bill my daughter for the defective device that killed her.”

The guardrail end Hannah hit was a Lindsay X-LITE — a model that TDOT had removed from its approved products list just one week (before her death)r…. due to concerns “about how the telescoping w-beam, slider assembly friction reduction systems may perform if impacted at higher speeds” than 100 kph or 62.2 mph.

Bill mandating school bus seat belts clears first vote

A bill requiring all Tennessee school buses be equipped with safety restraint systems by mid-2023 cleared its first House hurdle Wednesday, report the Times-Free Press. The voice vote came after two Chattanooga physicians gave dramatic testimony about the “terrible night” in November when a Hamilton County school bus crashed, killing six children and injuring others.

“I truly believe that the pain of those families and suffering of their children could have been prevented or lessened,” Dr. Alan Kohrt, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, told Transportation Subcommittee members.

He said that included not just the seat belt bill (HB395) sponsored by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, but another Favors bil (HB127)l. It requires school bus drivers be at least 25 years old and have had a five-year clean driving history before getting licensed by the state to transport students.

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House Transportation Committee votes for revised Haslam tax bill

The House Transportation Committee today approved, 11-7, the same revised version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tax package — including higher taxes on fuel and lower taxes on food – that was approved earlier in the Senate Transportation Committee. The panel has been viewed as the biggest obstacle to ultimate approval of the governor’s proposal, though several hurdles remain.

The vote came after about 90 minutes of debate and defeat or withdrawal of multiple amendments. A couple of amendments were adopted. Most notably, perhaps, one would reverse a current law that says that any cut in federal gas taxes would automatically trigger a corresponding increase in state gas taxes. The amendment says any increase in federal taxes would trigger a corresponding decrease in state fuel levies.

The most debated amendment was on a proposal by Rep. Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, that would have diverted money from sales taxes collected from the sale of vehicles to the highway fund without any fuel tax increase. It failed on an 8-10 vote.

The basic bill (HB534), as now approved by both the House and Senate Transportation Committees, raises the gas tax by six cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon – both increases phased in over a three-year period. The governor’s original proposal was seven cents per gallon on gas and 12 cents on diesel, both taking full effect July 1.

The revised version also cut the state sales tax on groceries from 5 percent to 4 percent. Originally, Haslam proposed a reduction to just 4.5 percent. Administration officials say the grocery tax, for most average Tennesseans, would now more than offset the increased taxes they will pay for fuel.

Most other provisions of the governor’s original package remain in place — including a corporate tax break designed to benefit for manufacturers.

The revised bill also won approval today, as expected, in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. In the Senate, it now goes to the Finance Committee. In the House, it now goes to the Local Government Committee.

The committees overseeing local government legislation are involved because the bill also includes provisions allowing city and county governments to hold referendums on raising taxes for transportation spending.

Note: The House committee roll call vote is HERE.

Haslam’s gas tax bill left in legislative muddle for another week

Legislators left Gov. Bill Haslam’s transportation funding bill in a confused tangle Tuesday.

A special Senate subcommittee amended the measure to eliminate everything but a list of highway projects that should be funded, then approved the measure. The House Transportation Committee, meanwhile, argued about the bill at some length, then put off a vote until next week.

From the Times-Free Press report:

Asked about his take on what had transpired (in the House committee), Transportation Commissioner John Schroer told a reporter “just come back in a week.”

As for whether it means problems ahead for the bill, which seeks to raise gas taxes by 7 cents per gallon for regular unleaded and diesel by 12 cents, Schroer said, “you’d have to ask them [commmittee members].”

Earlier in the day, a specially created Senate Transportation subcommittee unanimously approved the Republican governor’s proposed road improvement plan. But it didn’t include Haslam’s recommended gas and diesel tax increases to fund it.

The Senate version of the Republican governor’s proposed IMPROVE Act also doesn’t include Haslam’s recommended cuts in non-highway taxes that are intended to have an overall revenue-neutral impact on the state’s budget.

What senators did approve were just the 962 highway, interstate and bridge projects listed in the actual bill Haslam said are needed to tackle an estimated $10.5 billion backlog of projects.

Note: It’s SB1221/HB534

Senate panel votes verticle driver’s license for those under 21

News release from Senate Republican Caucus

NASHVILLE — The Senate Transportation and Safety Committee approved legislation today (Wednesday) requiring all new driver’s licenses issued to persons under the age of 21 in Tennessee be printed in vertical format to help businesses easily identify those who cannot drink alcohol. Senate Bill 384 would give the driver the option to change their license to horizontal upon turning age 21 for the reduced cost of a duplicate license.

Presently, a tiny red bar along the side of the photo on the license indicates a person is under the age of 21.

“What this really addresses is underage drinking,” said Senator Massey. “Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths nationwide among underage youths each year. Servers have found the small red bar presently on Tennessee licenses is hard to read, especially in high volume hours when a clerk or waiter is very busy. This legislation will make it much quicker and easier to identify a person who is under the age of 21 to curb any unintentional mistakes that might otherwise occur.”

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House sub adjourns rather than vote on road funding

The House Transportation Subcommittee voted to adjourn Wednesday rather than take a vote on a bill by Rep. David Hawk that was offered as an alternative to Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax plans. Abrupt approval of the adjournment motion, made by Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston, leaves both the Hawk bill and the Haslam bill sitting in the sub for at least another week.

From the Times-Free Press:

Haslam later told reporters he thinks it shows representatives remain undecided on how to address what he says is a $10.5 billion backlog of nearly 1,000 highway and bridge projects across Tennessee.

“We’ve said all along this was going to be a long path and it would involve a lot of discussion and the bill could take different forms at different times,” Haslam said. “But we’re not discouraged by this at all.”

… After hearing from trucking industry officials who favor Haslam’s plan, (Subcommittee Chair Rep. Terri Lynn) Weaver called up Hawk’s bill out of order from the calendar of measures to be considered.

“We’re going to go a little bit out of order here and keep you guys at the tip of your seats,” Weaver said.

(Windle then proposed an amendment to Hawk’s bill, which calls for diverting money from the state’s general fund to road construction without a tax increase, that would exempt baby formula from the state sales tax. Subcommittee Chair Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver ruled that motion out of order and Windle then made his adjournment motion, approved 5-3.)

…Windle was unapologetic.

…”Why should I apologize for representing people who get up and go to work every day? Why should it be people who are at the top of the food chain? Why shouldn’t somebody who actually has children going to work every day get a tax cut?”

…Weaver, who voted against the adjournment motion, later called Windle’s maneuver a “surprise.”

Asked why she’d called up Hawk’s bill out of order, Weaver said, “I do that a lot. Sometimes — I’m the chair, I can steer it anywhere I want to. I was looking for Jason Zachary, I couldn’t find him. He had a bill on there too.” 

Zachary, R-Knoxville, had yet another road funding proposal.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Barry Doss, R-Lawrenceburg, who is carrying Haslam’s bill, said, “We were about to get the governor’s bill out today. But evidently there were some people who were uncomfortable, maybe, with the Hawk plan. And they weren’t ready to vote on the Hawk plan.”

Doss said he believes “there’s a lot of people uncomfortable” with Hawk’s bill. “We come back next week and I think more people are comfortable with the governor’s plan.

TDOT gives IMPROVE a SPOT online

In promoting Gov. Bill Haslam’s gas tax plan to IMPROVE Tennessee roads, the Department of Transportation’s website has a new feature – an interactive map of all projects that could be funded with more money. And, of course, it has a new acronym: SPOT (Statewide Project Overview Tracker).

It’s HERE. The welcoming message reads;

Welcome to the SPOT website. This website is designed to provide you with an interactive tool to navigate priority transportation projects across the State of Tennessee. This application is a project overview tracker of county, TDOT region, and legislative districts for you to view basic details for transportation infrastructure, safety and economic development in locations that are important to you.

The projects are also categorized by their program type describing the primary benefit they offer the public of the State of Tennessee.

Note: ICYMI, IMPROVE stands for Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy. TDOT is the Tennessee Department of Transportation (pronounced tee-dot).

Can Haslam succeed with ‘pass the bottle’ ban where others failed?

Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to ban open containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles has been filed and is the subject of several media reports questioning whether it can pass with the governor’s backing after years of failure in past sessions.

The bill is HB532, part of the governor’s package of legislation aimed at increasing highway fund revenue.

From WPLN:

(Sen. Jon) Lundberg, R-Bristol, has tried five times to extend the state’s ban on open containers to include passengers. Each time, it has failed. Conventional wisdom is that tailgaters would like to have a nip (or two, going to or from) from the game.

Lundberg says that’s not just bad policy. It’s been costing the state money.

The federal government penalizes states that don’t have across-the-board open container bans by withholding some funding. The Haslam administration puts those loses at $18 million a year.

“This is a big chunk of money,” Lundberg says. “(When) people talk about raising the gas tax, they want to know you are squeezing every other drop of money that we’ve got to take care of this, right?”

With the governor pushing for more money for roads, he’s made getting rid of the pass-the-bottle loophole one of his priorities for the year. That’s served to elevate the issue.

Other stories: The Associated Press report, WSMV-TV, WRCB-TV.


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