In an effort to bolster funding to improve roads, the Missoula City Council is recommending that Missoula County Commissioners place a countywide 2-cent gasoline tax on the June 2 primary ballot.
The council approved a resolution recommending that county commissioners place the gasoline tax on the ballot in an 8-2 vote, with councilors Jesse Ramos and Sandra Vasecka voting against the resolution, and councilors Stacie Anderson and Julie Merritt absent.
"We have very few tools other than property taxes as a city to take care of this underfunded infrastructure," said Councilor Amber Sherill, who supported the resolution. "I like this because it is user based. I like this because it is a great tool to leverage federal money that we’re always trying to get."
The proposed tax would cost an estimated $10.76 per year for a person who drives about 13,400 miles a year and gets 25 miles per gallon. The tax would exclude all diesel fuels.
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County voters would have to approve the tax, which city and county staff estimate would raise about $1.1 million every year, with $400,000 coming from tourists. The money would be used for road maintenance and repair, and would be split evenly between the city and the county.
Councilor Ramos, who voted against recommending placing the tax on the ballot, said he would like to see the city use funding from other sources before raising taxes. He said there were various different funding sources the city could pull from, including the general fund and special improvement districts such as the Road District.
"We've taken about $21 million out of that road district since we created it ... and I think it's hard pressed to find any citizens who would agree the roads have gotten that much better because of it," Ramos said.
Although the city recommended the county place the tax on the ballot, the county is still taking public comment. County commissioners will meet again on Thursday, March 5, at 2 p.m. in the Sophie Moiese Room of the County Courthouse to take more public comment before voting on whether to put the issue before voters.
On Thursday, supporters and opponents of the proposed gasoline tax voiced their opinions to County Commissioners, where some supporters pointed out that some federal funding is only available with a local match, such as the $13 million federal BUILD grant the county got.
Jeremy Keene, head of Public Works for the city, said the county also looked at raising property taxes, but ultimately found the gas tax would cost less per person, and rely more on people who drive than all residents.
"It's a relatively small amount that we believe can make a meaningful difference in the way we’re able to maintain the roads," Keene said.
Keene estimated the city and county road maintenance budgets are underfunded by about $47 million per year and $34 million per year, respectively. He also estimated that expenditures per mile of roadway need to roughly double in order to adequately maintain the street network.
"As a nation, we have been woefully under-investing in our transportation network, and we have seen decade upon decade of declining federal investment or stagnant federal investment at best," said Councilor Jordan Hess, who carried the council's resolution.
"Our federal gas tax hasn't changed since I believe 1993. Meanwhile the cost of asphalt, the cost of oil, the cost of everything to build a road has gone up dramatically since 1993," Hess said.
Keene added that maintenance and repair of existing streets and roads are consistently among the highest priorities residents express.
According to city documents, the city is responsible for 339 miles of streets and roads and spends about $6.5 million per year on roadway maintenance.
Revenue from the local gas tax could be used to repair and maintain existing streets, including patching potholes and pavement overlays. The money could also be used to match federal transportation grants.