NHTSA rules Tenn. ineligible for $60 million in highway funding due to state’s new underage drinking law

Updated Sep 3, 2016

Tennessee welcome sign interstateTennessee’s Congressional delegates sent a group letter to U.S. Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx asking him to “work with” state leaders in ironing out a potential $60 million federal highway funding cut set in motion by a recent state law.

Representatives signing the letter include Phil Roe (R), Chuck Fleischmann (R), Stephen Fincher (R), John Duncan (R), Scott DesJarlais (R), Jim Cooper (D), Steve Cohen (D), Marsha Blackburn (R) and Diane Black (R). Both Senators Bob Corker (R) and Lamar Alexander (R) also signed the document.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently declared the state ineligible for the funding due to a state law that went into effect July 1 regarding underage impaired driving. The agency contends the law no longer keeps the state in compliance with 23 U.S.C. § 161.

That statute reads:

REQUIREMENT.—A State meets the requirement of this paragraph if the State has enacted and is enforcing a law that considers an individual under the age of 21 who has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.02 percent or greater while operating a motor vehicle in the State to be driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of alcohol.

The new law Tennessee passed raised the BAC percentage limit to 0.08 for those ranging in age from 18-20, but keeps the 0.02 limit for someone 17. However, it did increase penalties for violations.

NHTSA is requiring the state to be in compliance by October 1. The $60 million figure represents 8 percent of the state’s federal funding for highways.

Below is the letter from the Tennessee Congressional delegation:

Dear Secretary Foxx:

We are writing to urge you to work with Governor Bill Haslam and other leaders of Tennessee to resolve an issue that has arisen between our state and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) that threatens Tennessee with the loss of $60 million in urgently needed highway funds.  

Based upon our review of both the state and federal laws and the purpose behind both laws, it seems that both the State of Tennessee and the federal government have the same objective of penalizing impaired driving and that the common sense thing to do is to resolve this matter promptly.  We are available to assist in any way that would be helpful.

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The issue has arisen because the Tennessee General Assembly passed a new law that went into effect July 1, 2016, regarding underage impaired driving.  On Friday, August 19, 2016, our offices were informed that NHTSA had determined that because of this new law, the State of Tennessee may not be in compliance with 23 U.S.C. § 161.  John Schroer, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Transportation, has responded to NHTSA with several reasons why the State of Tennessee remains in compliance with 23 U.S.C. § 161, and a copy of Commissioner Schroer’s letter is attached for your review.

The State of Tennessee has made it clear that there was no intent for the new state law to affect compliance with 23 U.S.C. § 161, and any concerns with this new law can be corrected when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes in January 2017. 

In the meantime, Tennessee’s existing law already says any person under the age of 21 may not possess or consume any alcoholic beverage (T.C.A. § 1-3-113 and T.C.A. § 57-4-203(b)). Persons who violate these laws may be charged with a misdemeanor, for which the punishment is greater than what the federal law requires pursuant to 23 U.S.C. § 161. 

Again, we hope you will work with Tennessee to find a solution that will allow our state to retain desperately needed highway funds.  We stand ready to assist you in any way, and we look forward to resolving this matter quickly.