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Jax Daily Record Monday, May 10, 202109:15 PM EST

Civic Council supports city gas tax increase, with a caveat

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The Northeast Florida business group says Jacksonville City Council should pass the bill but reduce money for JTA’s Skyway upgrades to $190 million.
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

Plans to increase the Duval County gas tax to pay for nearly $1 billion in transportation projects gained the endorsement of the Jacksonville Civic Council on May 10, but millions in the plan to modernize the Downtown Skyway could instead go toward the creation of the Emerald Trail network of parks.

The Civic Council urged city lawmakers to pass a proposed increase and extension to Duval County’s local option gas tax to pay for nearly $1 billion in transportation projects, but reduce the amount planned to modernize the Skyway.

In an open letter May 10 to Mayor Lenny Curry, City Council President Tommy Hazouri and Council members, the private group of nearly 80 Northeast Florida CEOs and business leaders said it supports the city and Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s list of road and transportation improvement projects. 

However, the Civic Council recommends cutting the nearly $379 million budget for JTA’s proposed Skyway modernization, the Ultimate Urban Circulator, to $190 million.

“The Jacksonville Civic Council supports the proposed LOGT but strongly recommend(s) adjustments and reductions to the proposed allocation of funds to the Skyway repurposing and extensions,” said the letter signed by Civic Council Chair John Delaney and CEO Jeanne Miller.

Curry and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority want City Council to approve Ordinance 2021-0223, a 10-year extension of the Duval County gas tax to 2046 and increase from 6 cents to 12 cents per gallon.

JTA and the city propose advancing a combined $930.2 million in roadway, drainage and transportation improvements with the revenue.

JTA wants to convert the Skyway’s monorail system to a 10-mile elevated and at-grade network for automated vehicles.

The Civic Council said the gas tax should focus more on immediate transportation needs. It urged JTA to seek additional state and federal money to pay for the expected $415 million Skyway project.

“All major transportation projects are forward-thinking exercises. Historically, Butler Blvd, the Dames Point and Hart Bridges were known as the ‘road to nowhere’ and the ‘bridges to nowhere’ when originally built and were bitterly opposed. Each of these efforts were advanced by as much as 20 years,” the letter states.

“By leveraging and converting the outdated Skyway infrastructure, Jacksonville can do the same for mass transit.”

The Civic Council also endorsed a companion bill — Ordinance 2021-0235 —  that would borrow $100 million over two years to remove aging septic tanks and connect underserved neighborhoods to city sewers.

Curry officials said the gas tax revenue could free up to $300 million to $400 million over 30 years in the city general fund to put toward Duval County’s estimated $2 billion failing septic tank problem.

The group said the septic tank investment would “not only benefit the respective neighborhoods, but they will also protect the water quality of the St Johns River.” 

Hazouri introduced the septic tank bill at the request of Curry with City Council members Matt Carlucci and Ron Salem.

The Civic Council said Jacksonville has one of Florida’s lowest tax rates, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. and is “already behind in infrastructure.”  

“While it is never easy to propose a ‘tax,’ the Local Option Gas Tax is as much a user fee as a tax, and much of it will be paid by people who do not live in the county, but rather commute, work, or vacation here,” the Civic Council wrote. 

City Council is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. May 12 to debate and possibly take its first vote on the gas tax and septic tank bills.

Council member Matt Carlucci wants to move millions from the Skyway to pay for the Emerald Trail network of parks.

From the UTC to the Emerald Trail

Some City Council members want to reject any spending on the Skyway and some want to reject the gas tax increase altogether.

City Council member LeAnna Cumber said March 29 she would rather see the aging Downtown Skyway system demolished than authorize the $379 million to improve and expand it.

The Civic Council said the estimated $50 million needed to tear down the Skyway and another $50 million JTA would have to repay the federal government in grants awarded the project is “not practical.” 

The group added the demolition would cause “significant disruption” to nearby businesses.

JTA CEO Nat Ford said in a May 6 interview with the Daily Record that returning the federal grant money for the original Skyway and the $12.5 million already received for the U2C’s Bay Street Innovation Corridor could put the city at risk of losing future U.S. Department of Transportation project funding. 

Carlucci said May 10 that he will file an amendment to the gas tax legislation during the May 12 Council Committee of the Whole meeting that would shift $140 million from the U2C to completion of Groundwork Jacksonville’s proposed Emerald Trail network.

At existing funding levels, the 30-mile network of trails and amenities connecting urban core neighborhoods with Downtown is expected to be completed by the end of the decade.

“It’s a quality-of-life project. I want to see us do this trail and complete it,” Carlucci said.

“I want to see it be a great thing for Jacksonville. If we’re going to do it, we need to do it now while we have a funding source available to us.

“We were to be ‘The Bold New City of the South.’ Adding the Emerald Trail to this (bill) fulfills the promise of being bold,” he said.

Curry Chief of Staff Jordan Elsbury said May 10 that the mayor supports Carlucci’s amendment, which would keep about $240 million in the bill for the Skyway U2C conversion, which JTA estimates will take six to seven years.

JTA would need an additional $140 million for a 10-mile expansion that would provide service to San Marco, Five Points in Riverside, Brooklyn and UF Health Jacksonville near Springfield. 

The first phase of the U2C project, bringing the automated cars down Bay Street to TIAA Bank Field, is fully funded, according to JTA.

 Elsbury said the city Office of General Counsel issued an opinion May 7 that says the Emerald Trail project was an eligible transportation project under the state’s local option gas tax statute.

Delaney, former Jacksonville mayor and former University of North Florida president, said the Civic Council’s letter was drafted before Carlucci announced his amendment May 7 in The Florida Times-Union. 

In a May 10 text message, Delaney said the difference between what Carlucci wants to appropriate to the U2C and the Civic Council’s suggestion is “directionally in the same ballpark.” 

“(Civic Council is) not hung up on the small differences between our suggestion and the proposal. The important thing is we support the overall revenue play for transportation projects,” he said.

Delaney said the Civic Council has not studied the proposed Emerald Trail’s costs or return on investment to the city but called it a “wonderful amenity for Downtown Jacksonville.”

JTA Director of Communications David Cawton said in a statement May 10 that the transportation authority appreciated the Civic Council’s “thoughtful attention” to the gas tax. 

“We are working with the JTA Board in considering a portion of funds to be directed to the Emerald Trail, without jeopardizing the conversion of the Skyway to the Ultimate Urban Circulator,” Cawton said.

The Civic Council is the second regional business organization to announced support of Curry’s proposed gas tax increase. The JAX Chamber board of directors endorsed it April 22.

Politics and alternatives

In its letter, the Civic Council called the gas tax vote the City Council’s “duty” under Florida state statute, differing from calls from City Council member Aaron Bowman and others to put the measure to a ballot referendum.

“It is tempting for elected officials to attempt to avoid a controversial vote by seeking a voter advisory ‘straw vote,’” the Civic Council wrote.

“But the Jacksonville City Council members are elected and paid to vote on the gas tax, and an expensive advisory vote is simply not needed, or responsible. Our elected officials have that duty.”

It is unclear if supporters of a higher gas tax will have the votes on City Council to pass the legislation as filed.

City Council member Danny Becton, who opposes the gas tax increase, filed a bill May 5 to fund up to $100 million in countywide road construction and sidewalk projects through short-term and fixed-rate bond debt and pay it off using existing city tax revenue. 

In a May 7 news release, Becton said it is “widely acknowledged” that the city has debt capacity to pay for both septic tank improvements and infrastructure improvements. 

That came after Elsbury told Becton during the April 29 gas tax Committee of the Whole meeting that the city could pay for $100 million in additional bond debt with existing tax revenue levels. 

City Council members Becton, Bowman, Cumber, Rory Diamond and Al Ferraro are on record opposing the gas tax increase as Curry and Hazouri proposed.

According to the City Council Auditor’s Office, state statute requires a majority plus one — 11 votes — to approve the gas tax increase.

At least eight of the 19 City Council members have said publicly that they support some version of the gas tax increase, while another six say they support aspects of the bill or have not taken a position. 

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