Some transit officials want lawmakers to support gas tax hike

02/22/13 Janelle Irwin
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Some transit officials want the Florida legislature to let localities increase their local gas tax as much as ten cents per gallon. A Sarasota planning official suggested several possible ways to boost revenue during the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority meeting Friday in Tampa.

Michael Howe, executive director for the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization is pushing for a 2-cent increase to local gas taxes every year for the next five years.

“I think the public, knowing they want to have safe roads, they want to have good roads to drive on, they wouldn’t mind paying an extra two cents.”

According to Howe, the federal government puts billions of dollars into transportation investments to bail out insolvent agencies. But even if raising revenue is a necessary evil, Howe recognizes that getting it past state lawmakers who cringe at the mere mention of tax increases is a long shot.

“I’m a constituent as well and no one wants more taxes and I understand their trepidation at raising taxes, but there is a time when you have to take care of what you built or it’s going to go away.”

The idea of raising gas taxes, among more than a dozen other ideas, hasn’t gotten sponsorship in Tallahassee. Even if it did, it would be an uphill battle to secure the votes needed to pass and would face yet another challenge in getting Governor Rick Scott’s signature. But Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson says her county successfully hiked gas taxes a decade ago.

“And what we discovered was, at the pump, the gas stations charge what the market will bear and you saw very little difference between what it costs for a gallon of gas in Manatee County verses Sarasota County.”

Supporters of raising revenue argue expenses are on the rise while revenue has been steadily declining.

“Roads cost more to build, transit costs more to run – so, as Mike says, it’s a perfect storm on our inability to keep up with transportation needs. We can’t even keep our roads properly paved and we are an urban area, generally pretty solvent.”

Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Howe says that the perfect storm is fueled by the rising accessibility of hybrid and electric cars.

“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the economy to have these new products coming on – I think it’s the wave of the future, but if that’s the wave of the future than we’re not going to have any money to fix our roads or build new roads because those people, other than their registration fees – which they still pay – they are not paying into the maintaining the infrastructure.”

But not everyone is on board with the idea of raising gas taxes. Rebecca Bays, a Citrus County Commissioner says residents in smaller communities lack decent transportation options.

“Yet, on the same principle, when the state comes down with mandates, they expect us to participate on mandates at the same level, but we can’t encourage any type of economic development without transportation and then the gas tax becomes a burden on my local citizens that aren’t able to have the living wage job.”

An alternative suggestion is to tap into already existing revenue streams that the state diverted from transportation into the general coffers. Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Howe also says that is a good idea, but it’s not enough.

“Since 1999, we are $12 billion behind. So, yes, $250 million in not diverting funds is going to help the situation, but it will take you a long time to catch with that original purchasing power you had in 2000.”

Other suggestions include a 1-cent optional sales tax or raising diesel gas tax 5-cents. Howe says if he can’t find a sponsor to support any of the proposed measures this year, he plans to keep trying.

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