BROOKSVILLE — It may be time to further tap the power of the gas pump to help pay for road improvements in Hernando County.
That's the message County Administrator David Hamilton says he will bring to the County Commission at an upcoming workshop.
Tacking on a penny or two to the gas tax could be an effective way to finally get shovels moving for crucial transportation projects that are stuck in neutral due to lack of funding, Hamilton told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Thursday.
"The improvements to road infrastructure keep falling farther back to the distant horizon," Hamilton said. "The fairest way in an unfair world to tax people that use roads is to tax the fuel that provides their ability to utilize them."
Hernando County is currently levying 9 cents of the maximum 12 cents per gallon allowed by law. Six cents of that goes to the state, and county keeps 3 cents to use at its discretion for road projects.
That means the county could tack on up to 3 cents and keep the money for road projects. Adding two pennies would bring in nearly $2 million, Hamilton said. The deadline to levy the tax is July 1, which would be in time to factor the extra revenue into next year's budget.
The idea was among several considered by a budget committee last year but went nowhere. Hamilton on Thursday stopped short of saying he would recommend the tax increase, only that he would present the list of projects and the potential income at a workshop in April to get the conversation going.
"It's the most likely area where we can get an honest discussion about balancing the cost of government to provide services, in this case safe roads," Hamilton said.
Lime rock roads would be prime candidates for the extra revenue, Hamilton said. But probably the most pressing project on the list, he said, is County Line Road.
While construction is already under way with state funds to add lanes to the choked thoroughfare just east of U.S. 19, improvements closer to the Suncoast Parkway are several years away.
"If we're ever going to finish that in our lifetime, there's a whole lot of money missing," Hamilton said.
The county could take the initiative by using gas tax money to add lanes at the intersection of County Line Road and Mariner Boulevard.
"It's almost like a vehicular free-for-all there," Hamilton said. "The roads don't even align."
Such initiative would show the state and neighboring Pasco County that Hernando is serious about finally getting the work done, Hamilton said.
The FDOT is already working on the design for those improvements as part of the overall widening of County Line, so the county could use that plan, expected to be ready within a year, said Dennis Dix, Hernando Metropolitan Planning Organization coordinator.
"It's going to be a good fix because that's where the bottleneck is, but I imagine it's not going to be very inexpensive," Dix said.
He estimates the cost to be at least $7 million and "probably a lot more than that." But going to the state with match money would help speed the project along, Dix said.
Raising the gas tax requires the approval of four of five commissioners. The idea may not even get out of the parking lot, based on reactions from commissioners Thursday.
County Commissioner Dave Russell acknowledged that improving intersections is a relatively inexpensive way to add capacity compared to widening whole stretches of road. As a former state legislator who has worked for years on the County Line Road widening, Russell knows the power of leveraging local dollars.
But raise taxes? In a recession?
"I just don't think it's the right time to be talking about it," he said.
Federal stimulus dollars have helped the county and more may be on the way, Russell said.
Chairman John Druzbick, like Russell, said he would be willing to listen to Hamilton.
"But in general the board has stated we're not going to raise any taxes," Druzbick said. "I hope he is going to have all the essential background information for why this is something we should consider."
Commissioner Jeff Stabins was quicker to commit, saying he would not support the idea and expressed concern about hearing the idea from a reporter. "I wish he would have run that one up the flagpole to individual commissioners first," Stabins said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.