Better roads worth the cost of gasoline tax

Published May 20, 2007

No one wants to pay more for gasoline. But most of us do pay, griping as we grip the pump but unwilling or unable to overcome our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation.

Per-gallon fuel prices have fluctuated as much as a dime a day in the past 18 months, and the forecast calls for those costs to climb even higher this summer. Somewhere, people are becoming richer than they already were as the rest of us spend more of our hard-earned cash to get to work, to school or to Grandma's for Sunday dinner.

Consumers can't control the price of fuel, but wouldn't it be some consolation to know that instead of just enriching some fat cat oil executive, we could get a tangible return from a portion of what we pay at the pump?

We already do, of course, with the taxes we pay on fuel purchases. The federal and state governments take their share right off the top and use it mainly to pay for interstates and other busy highways. And local governments tax us, too. The state allows counties to levy up to 12 cents per gallon, and that money can be used to build new roads or improve existing ones.

In Hernando County, motorists pay 9 cents per gallon. In 16 other Florida counties, including neighboring Citrus County, the full 12 cents is levied.

On June 26, the County Commission will hold a public hearing to weigh the arguments for and against raising the gas tax an additional 3 cents. The money would be used to continue the county's residential road pavement program, as well as to improve the network of collector roads that are deteriorating because of age and increased traffic.

Predictably, before the proposal has even had a chance to be discussed, the no-new-taxes crowd has already condemned the idea. No matter how great the need, or how obvious the long-term negative consequences, its members are against any additional tax.

And there is a very good chance they will get their way, mainly because they will state their case louder and more often and sprinkle it with threats to un-elect county commissioners who would even engage in a debate about a tax increase. To be sure, that tactic has an undeniably persuasive effect on elected officials.

But this proposal to increase the gas tax has merit, and the people who are less strident in their attitude about taxes should - make that, have a responsibility to - step up and counter the opposition.

Hernando County needs more revenue from a dedicated funding source to maintain its transportation network. The situation will only get worse as roads decline and costs increase to repair them.

Allowing roads to slip into disrepair undermines economic development and jeopardizes public safety. The influential community groups that are compelled to take stands on land-use issues and applications for housing or retail developments should get behind this proposal. That includes the chamber of commerce, Realtors, builders, bankers and environmental groups.

Good roads are good for business, and they are a fundamental element in raising the quality of life in a community. Those who recognize that imposing what amounts to a user fee - the people who use the roads the most pay the most - is in the best long-term interest of the county must not stand by while the antitax crowd hijacks this important issue.

Jeff Webb can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or 352 754-6123.