Stephen Joost has beaten the anti-gas tax drum within the community the past several months. He’s taken his message to civic groups, business organizations and even the Jacksonville Transportation Authority board.
On Wednesday, his City Council colleagues beat back.
Joost was in the minority during a meeting of the three committees that will review extending the 6-cent gas tax another 20 years. The former council president has maintained he is not against extending the tax — he just doesn’t want it extended that long. Especially at a time when better mileage automobiles and gas conservation make it an unreliable funding source.
Last year, the tax brought in more than $27 million for JTA. Without it, there’s a hole that would drastically reduce transit service, JTA board member Ed Burr reiterated to the committees.
“This is not a road-building bill,” Burr told council members. “This is a transit bill.”
Council members wanted to know how to fill that gap without the tax and looked to Joost for an answer.
“If you are against it, you have to have an alternative … and I haven’t heard any,” said council member Denise Lee
She suggested if the tax wasn’t extended, the revenue would come from the general fund — which is one of the reasons council President Bill Gulliford said he introduced the bill.
“Every penny that comes back is a penny we don’t have to take out of the general fund, the banking fund,” Gulliford said.
Despite his colleagues saying he had no plan, Joost says he has one: extend the tax until 2019, when the Legislature allows natural and compressed gas to be taxed. From there, he said, look closer at the situation before bonding out funds for the transportation projects.
He acknowledged that current market conditions would be cheaper for labor, materials and interest rates. But, but he doesn’t think the trade-off for the length of the tax, combined with increasing fuel efficiencies, would bring in the revenue to cover the borrowing.
Council member Reggie Brown also had questions, but more so about the lack of coordinated community meetings on the subject. He also wanted to change parts of the projects list, such as committing funding for infrastructure to parts of U.S. 1 instead of a Soutel Drive hub.
The list is a series of prioritized projects created over the past couple of months by the JTA and city’s Public Works Department. If the gas tax were to be extended, JTA would bond about $100 million to begin those road projects, with what’s recouped from the tax paying back the debt.
Broken down, the 5 cents from every gallon would go toward the JTA for that debt service and transit operations. The remaining 1 cent would head to the city for road maintenance and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Gulliford and Lee both talked about the influx of jobs that would come with the funded construction projects.
“It’s exactly what people need,” Lee said.
Still, Joost said passing the bill would be a $500 million to $600 million tax over 20 years, which he categorized as “not a normal bill.”
It’s possible that the legislation could have built-in language that would allow future tax revenue from the natural gas industry to be applied toward repayments. The idea was brought up by council member Bill Bishop and will be looked into further.
The joint Rules, Finance and Transportation, Energy and Utilities committee will meet at least once more.