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Gas tax back on legislative agenda to provide funding for roads, bridges

Alabama lawmakers could debate a possible gasoline tax increase to fund road and bridge construction when they return to Montgomery in March.

Citing congested and neglected roadways and crumbling bridges, legislative leaders said a gas tax measure to improve infrastructure will be a major topic of the 2019 session.

“The topic of the day would be the gas revenue measure. We are trying to get a piece of legislation ready for that,” Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon told The Associated Press.

That’s welcome news to Pike County, said Pike County Commission Chairman robin Sullivan.

“It’s time to tackle it – I hope that’s how they feel,” Sullivan said. “I hope from our standpoint that we can come to some kind of agreement.”

Sullivan said the county currently has 175 miles of road that is overdue for paving and 61 bridges posted for low weight.

“Some of those are structurally deficient and some are functionally obsolete,” Sullian said. “We’re looking at about $32 million worth of work that we need to get done.”

The county does not have the money to get any of that done though, Sullivan said. The county did address 8 to 10 miles of the county’s worst roads in 2018 using a two-year plan that Sullivan said pinched every penny the commission could find.

Alabama’s current state gas tax of 18 cents a gallon has been unchanged since 1992 and is among the lowest in the nation, according to comparisons from the American Petroleum Institute. However, local governments can have their own separate gas taxes.

“We don’t live on salaries from 1992 so how can we be expected to pave roads on a 1992 budget?” Sullivan said. “Everything has gone way up as far as the cost for paving materials and actually doing the paving, but our revenue stream has not gone up. We’ve suffered and had to get by instead of fixing it.

“A lot of people may not know that we don’t have a gas tax in Pike County, we don’t have a diesel tax. What we get is state allotted. It trickles down from the state. Unless we created a sole tax of our own, there’s no fix at the county level. But it’s not just Pike County that has this problem – a lot of our counties in our state do. It needs to be statewide.”

McCutcheon said they have discussed ideas such as linking the gas tax to a regional average or indexing. He said the goal is to provide a revenue stream that will not be burdensome at the pump.

“Everybody hates to say gas tax, but the reality is you are going to have to have revenue to address the structural issues, said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. “What we’ve got to determine what are we willing to bite off at this point in time.”

Marsh said lawmakers will have to discuss with constituents the tradeoff of “paying more gasoline” to get safer and less congested roads.

Rep. Bill Poole, who is expected to sponsor the legislation, said the state has thousands of bridges over 50 years old, many of which are functionally obsolete.

“We fund our infrastructures at one of the lowest levels in the southeast. We have an aging infrastructure and a growing population,” said Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.

A gas tax bill faltered two years ago.

In the 2017 legislative session, House leaders did not bring a proposed gas tax increase up for a floor vote after it became clear the measure did not have the votes to pass.

Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Troy, said there is support for the idea if the bill reaches the Senate .

“It has right now very good support in the Alabama Senate, good enough I think to pass if it reaches the Senate in the right form,” Holley said. “We desperately need an infrastructure program in the state of Alabama to compete with other states that seem have lots of resources. We’re just getting by with a very small highway program right now and our needs are great.

Holley said the tax is sensible as it affects the users of the roads and bridges.

While there is more optimism among proponents for the legislation in 2019, the political landscape remains complicated.

“It’s going to be a real hard sell for a lot of people,” said Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham.

There are also expected to be tussles over where the money goes. Adding to the uncertainty, the incoming Alabama Legislature has a large number of freshmen — with more than two dozen alone in the 105-member House — who will be navigating the issue for the first time.

One of those new members, Rep. Wes Allen, said he is waiting to see the bill and how it will affect District 89.

“My approach is going to be how does it affect Pike County?” Allen said. “Our needs in Pike and Dale counties are different than the needs in Huntsville, Mobile and the large metropolitan areas. I want to see how this is going to affect the residents and tapayers of District 89.”

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said the Democratic caucus has so far not been included in any discussions with the Republican majority about a bill. “They did this last time and look what happened. It went down in the flames,” said Daniels, D-Huntsville.

Jim Page, president of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and chairman of Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure, a business-affiliated group promoting infrastructure development, said Alabama’s low state gas tax “may sound good at first” but “all it really means is Alabama’s road and bridge system is just getting left behind.”

Sullivan said his hope is that the gas tax allows the county to get to a cycle where roads can be resurfaced every 15 to 20 years.

“What I hope is that we get a steady long-term revenue stream,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want to have to rob Peter to pay Paul. If that’s the case, 20 years from now we’ll be back in the same position we’ve been in. We need something long-lasting we can count on year after year to keep roads and bridges up to date. The life cycle of a road is about 20 years. If we can get on that repaving cycle, we can keep things in better shape. Right now we’re on about a 50-year repaving cycle.”