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Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS)

Original Author: Hemsley, Sid
Date of Material: 02/01/1999

Utilities--Finance--Laws and regulations
Utilities--Laws and regulations
Finance--Use of public funds

Maintenance and Operation of Street Lighting on Interstate Highways

Reviewed Date: 04/23/2021
MTAS was asked whether the city can pay the county for the operation of certain street lights on the interstate highway system outside the city.

Can the city pay the county for the operation of certain street lights on the interstate highway system outside the city? The answer is no.

Under the facts related, the state and county have a contract under which the latter pays for the operation of street lights on a portion of the interstate highway in the county, specifically at an interchange. That interchange serves as the main access to I-75 both to and from the city, and is within approximately 50 feet of the city limits. The lights provide the users of the interstate highway system, including the residents of the city, the benefit of lighted access to and from, and travel on, that portion of the interstate. The county wants the city to pay the cost of the operation of those street lights.

All municipal expenditures must pass a two-prong test:

1. The expenditure must be for a public purpose;

2. The expenditure must be expressly or impliedly authorized by some statute.

We need not even address the question of whether the city’s payment for the operation of such street lights would be for a public purpose (although arguably under the facts related it would pass that test) because the expenditure does not pass the second test.

Tennessee Code Annotated, section 54-5-206, provides that:

The department is hereby authorized to maintain the rights-of-way, pavement, and structures of streets over which interstate highway traffic is routed within municipalities and designed by the commissioner as part of the interstate and defense system of highways as defined by the Federal Highway Act of 1956; provided that the department shall have no authority to maintain or operate lighting system for or on such streets, but cities and municipalities may maintain and operate such systems in accordance with standards prescribed by the commissioner; and provided further that they shall be maintained and operated at the expense of the cities and municipalities. [Emphasis is mine.]

State highways within municipalities in Tennessee are municipal streets over which state traffic is routed. [Collier v. Baker, 27 S.W.2d 1085 (1930).] Tennessee Code Annotated, section 54-5-206, reinforces that doctrine with respect to interstate highways within municipalities. Indeed, Tennessee Code Annotated, section 54-5-210, provides that even if a municipality fails to perform certain functions supporting the state's acquisition of territory for interstate highways within its corporate limits and the state must on its own initiative acquire the territory, the character of interstate highways thus produced does not change; they still become city streets.

Tennessee Code Annotated, section 54-5-206, puts the responsibility for the maintenance of interstate highways within municipal limits on the state (which is consistent with other statutes that do the same thing for non-interstate state highways running through municipalities), but makes one express exception: the maintenance and operation of street lighting. However, it does not put the responsibility for the maintenance and operation of such street lighting on municipalities; rather, it gives municipalities authority to "operate such systems...." Because it that authority expressly applies only to interstate highways within municipalities (which are city streets), it is limited to such territory.

I have been unable to find any other express or implied authority for municipalities in Tennessee to pay for lighting systems outside their city limits on any kind of road or highway.