Wear and tear on roads costs the average Anniston-area driver $1,300 per year, local officials claimed in a press conference in Anniston Monday.
“To keep up with demand, we need to pave 371 miles every five years, and right now we’re only paving 75,” said County Commissioner Lee Patterson.
Patterson and other local officials called for more highway spending in a meeting with reporters at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.
The stated reason for the meeting was to discuss a study by TRIP, a D.C.-based nonprofit, claiming that local residents pay more for gas and vehicle repairs because of the poor state of the area's roads.
But the meeting could also be said to kick off a week-long publicity push by advocates of a gas tax increase, timed just in advance of the March 5 start of the legislative session. Gov. Kay Ivey plans to unveil an infrastructure plan Wednesday, officials of the governor's office announced Monday.
Alabama pays for its roads with an 18-cent-per-gallon gas tax. That per-gallon amount hasn't changed since 1992, despite the fluctuations on the price of gas over the years and despite increases in the cost to fix roads.
Proponents of a tax increase say the current tax setup is starving Alabama's Transportation Department of the money it needs to keep roads fixed — much less build new ones to accommodate a growing population.
"We've put this off far too long," said Greg Brown, chief executive officer at B.R. Williams Trucking in Oxford. Brown attended the press conference in his capacity as a board member for the Alabama Alliance for Infrastructure, a group of chambers of commerce and other business organizations that supports a tax increase.
Brown said his trucking company burns about 700,000 gallons of gas per year. That's enough to cost him $7,000 for every cent-per-gallon increase. Still, he said, the trucking companies could eventually make up the cost by spending less time on congested roads and repairing less wear and tear.
"It's a trade-off in the sense that production will increase even if we pay more," he said.
Lawmakers and other local officials have long been convinced that a gas tax bill is coming, but few seem to know how big the proposed increase will be and whether it will apply equally to regular gas and diesel fuel. No gas tax bill has yet been filed for the coming session.
Brown said he expects and increase between 6 and 12 cents.
"I think it will be 5 or 6 cents initially, and then there will be a phase-in period for the rest," he said.
Timing is everything. With statewide elections held last year, lawmakers have three years for any backlash to blow over before the next election. That could be particularly important for Republican lawmakers, who hold a supermajority in both houses. While legislative leaders have said they're willing to consider a gas tax, the party's executive committee approved a resolution opposing the gas tax over the weekend.
"The grass roots are clearly on the side of limiting taxation," said Decatur resident Tom Fredricks, a member of the Republican Executive Committee. He proposed the resolution, which in essence would require the Legislature to reduce other taxes to offset the amount raised by a gas tax increase.
The TRIP study predicts the average driver in Anniston, Oxford or Gadsden would see $328 per year in costs due to time lost in traffic congestion and $488 in repairs due to vehicle damage from poorly-maintained roads. Legal and medical costs from crashes caused by poor road conditions average out to about $485 per person per year, the study said.
Rocky Moretti, a researcher for the group, said the numbers were based on computer modeling that took into account the age of local roads and other factors. He said the group is also using the results of a University of Alabama study that looked at how much the state should spend on new construction to keep up with demand.
"The state should be spending at least $600 million per year to add capacity," he said.
TRIP is funded largely by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers and highway construction contractors, according to its website. Moretti said his group is holding similar press conferences in Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Mobile this week.
Local officials said they didn't know much about how the group arrived at its numbers, but the county has numbers of its own. About half of the 150 bridges in the county are more than 50 years old, said Michael Hosch, assistant county engineer. Seven are posted as unsafe for school buses, lengthening the bus routes for some schools.
"Kids have to walk a long way in order to get on the bus," said County Commission President Fred Wilson. "So we are concerned about our kids, in bad weather, in cold weather, having to walk to get on the bus."