The Albany City Council seems open to the idea of putting a local gas tax before the voters this fall. That's the impression I got after catching the tail end of a council work session on Monday.
The council had a presentation -- again -- on the need for more revenue for street maintenance and repair. Jeff Blaine, director of public works engineering, gave a list of options for raising what he said is needed to keep arterial and collector streets in a reasonable condition, which most of them still are. About $5 million a year is needed to maintain the main roads to avoid the need for full reconstruction later, according to the staff's estimate. The city now spends about $1.6 million a year on streets, leaving a "funding gap" of $3.4 million a year.
I missed most of the meeting because of another commitment. But toward the end, there seemed to be a consensus that a local gas tax --3 cents a gallon was mentioned -- should be part of the mix. Mayor Sharon Konopa suggested that the staff prepare more information on the gas tax option by August, close to the time when a decision has to be made to place a measure before the voters in November. This was greeted by murmurs of assent and nodding of heads.
There are no reliable figures for how much a gas tax would raise. But one estimate is that a 3-cent tax would result in annual city revenue of $750,000. Albany voters rejected proposals for a local gas tax in 1982 and 1991.
Councilman Rich Kellum said he's not ready to sign on to the gas tax option unless the council also redirects some general fund revenue toward the street fund. Years ago, a portion of electric and natural gas franchise tax revenue was dedicated to street work, but a later council shifted that money to the general fund because of "competing priorities," in the words of the staff presentation. Restoring this money to streets would mean about $1.2 million a year more for pavement and such.
One flaw in the discussion, as far as I heard it, was that it concentrated on the main streets, the arterials and collectors. Those are not the streets that cause most of the complaints about Albany streets. The complaints are about the side streets in the older sections of town, where the pavement is pockmarked by cracks and deep holes.
Maintaining the main streets makes sense for many reasons. But voters would have little reason to approve a local gas tax or any other funding source, such as a bond issue, unless it also included the promise of a fix of the streets that threaten to shake apart their cars. (hh)