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Gas tax may yield but little for small towns

Gas tax

A customer pumps gas at the Mapco store in Alexandria Friday morning. With the gas tax set to start Sept. 1, a portion of Mudd Street in western Calhoun County is expected to get new pavement and stripes. 

The new gas tax that came to Alabama’s pumps today will significantly boost Ohatchee Mayor Steven Baswell’s road budget. But it won’t change his world.

Ohatchee will likely get $13,000 from the gas tax next year, he said, on top of the $20,000 the city currently gets. That money doesn’t buy a lot of road.

“It’s not earth-shaking for us,” Baswell said.

Baswell and other local officials are expecting a little more revenue in the coming year thanks to the 6-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase that Alabama drivers begin paying today. Approved earlier this year by the state Legislature, it’s the first increase to the gas tax in more than 25 years.

Advocates for the tax hailed the vote as a watershed moment for Alabama’s ailing roads, which state officials acknowledged were in poor shape. The cry was strongest from rural counties, where road systems are extensive and taxpayers are few.

But now that cities and counties are releasing their plans for spending the tax, it’s clear that the effects of the tax may not be visible for a long time.

“We’ll probably put it in the bank and let it build,” said Jacksonville City Administrator Albertha Grant, who’s expecting the city to collect $58,000 from the gas tax in the coming year — not enough to cover most road projects. Local officials in the past have quoted prices of $100,000 to $200,000 for paving a single mile of road. Grant said the city would need to save up money to have enough to begin a project.

“Rather than haphazardly decide what we’re going to do, we decided to bank that money,” said Bill Baker, mayor of Piedmont. He said the city expects about $28,000 from the tax hike next year.

Attempts to reach Anniston and Oxford officials this week for information on gas tax expenditures were unsuccessful.

Calhoun County’s government has a bigger chunk of the money — and county officials know what they’re going to do with it. County officials in July announced they’d spend about $700,000 in gas tax funds to resurface 2 miles ofMudd Street on the county’s western edge.

A rural two-lane that connects Eastaboga to Ohatchee, Mudd Street may not seem like one of the area’s busiest thoroughfares. But the county paves mostly rural roads, outside city limits, and assistant county engineer Rodney McCain said Mudd is in fact one of the county’s most-traveled highways.

“The volume of truck traffic is high, probably because of the Honda factory in Lincoln,” he said. County officials have had their eye on the road for possible repairs for years, he said.

Even users of the road, however, may bristle at the thought of their gas going up 6 cents per gallon.

“How are we supposed to pay for that?” said Lincoln resident Casey Horner, who stopped into the Mapco station at Mudd Street and U.S. 78 Friday afternoon. “Somebody’s going to have to give us all a raise.”

Proponents of the gas tax have long argued that the cost of the tax is lower than it seems. Set at 18 cents per gallon in the early 1990s, it’s stayed at that per-gallon price until now. Meanwhile cars on average use less gas than they did a quarter-century ago, and the cost of road materials has grown.

Under the new gas-tax bill, drivers can expect the gas tax to keep climbing. It goes up another 2 cents in 2020 and another 2 cents in 2021, with further increases possible after 2023.

By then, Ohatchee may have enough saved up to begin roadwork funded by the gas tax. With about 1,100 residents, the city generates little revenue and gets only a small slice of the tax.

“Most of the time, we’ve just got enough to patch some potholes,” Baswell said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.