D4 commissioner: ‘Proposed gas tax hike a necessary evil’

Brandon Smith doesn’t like taxes. Neither does he like the condition of the rural roads he and many other rural residents travel each day. But Smith, the Escambia County Commission’s District 4 representative, grudgingly agrees that the proposed statewide gasoline tax increase might be the only solution to the second problem.

“Nobody likes a tax, and I don’t either, but at some point you’ve got to figure out a way to address the fact that a lot of our roads are falling apart,” Smith said. “(The proposed tax hike) is a good opportunity for us, and it’s probably the fairest tax you could have. A project like this would reach a lot of folks and would get our infrastructure, especially on the west end of the county, in pretty good shape.”

The proposal, which has the endorsement of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, would add six cents to the price of a gallon of gas in all 67 Alabama counties. Half the money generated from the bond issue that would provide the actual funding would remain in state coffers; the other half would go to the county in which it was raised.

The money from the increased gas taxation would be used to retire bonds that would be sold to finance the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP). Under the most popular version of the proposed legislation, each county would be guaranteed $10 million over the life of the bonds, probably 10 years, then the increase would vanish.

The tax funds would be restricted to use in improving or enhancing roads and bridges. Projections are that the increase would raise more than $13 million for paving or otherwise repairing Escambia County roads and bridges. About 80 percent of that would go to the county, with the rest designated for municipalities.

“Everybody, from folks who live in town to those who live on lane-and-a-half country roads out here in the middle of the county, will benefit from it,” said Smith, whose district encompasses Atmore and some of the rural areas that abut Florida, Baldwin County and Monroe County.

“It’s a way to address some of these horrible roads and bridges and put our community where it ought to be.”

The current cost of resurfacing a road runs between $80,000 and $100,000 per mile, money that isn’t easy to come by.

“We have roughly 900 miles of county roads, and our municipalities have about 40 to 45 miles,” the commissioner said. “When you talk about a lot of the backroads and the farm-to-market roads, there’s no funding through the state or federal government, so all that cost falls back on the county. And we don’t have a lot of $80,000 to $100,000 per mile laying around.”

The most attractive part of the proposal, Smith said, is that it would not restrict the funds to use on major traffic arteries, as was the case when the first round of ATRIP funding was allocated over the past several years.

“Taxes are a touchy subject with everybody,” he said. “But we’ve got roads that have patches on patches, on patches. Some of our communities haven’t seen an asphalt truck in 40 years. The folks that live out there, off the beaten path, pay taxes, too, and they want good roads to ride on, too, but there’s never been any funding for it. It’s time to change that, and this gas tax increase will allow us to do that. It’s just a fair tax for everybody, if you want to call a tax fair.”