JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Members of Jacksonville City Council on Wednesday morning started to hear from stakeholders in the proposed gas tax increase and how the money would be used for infrastructure needs across the city, including a massive expansion of the polarizing Skyway.
Mayor Lenny Curry first proposed last month that Duval County double the local gas tax from 6 to 12 cents per gallon to fund major projects.
The increase would generate nearly $1 billion in revenue over 25 years that would be split between the city and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and go toward 72 infrastructure projects across the city, including building new highways and streets and getting homes off septic tanks.
Jordan Elsbury, chief of staff for Curry, said the administration planned to file the legislation at 3 p.m. Wednesday and it will be formally introduced to the full city council next Tuesday.
The proposed tax increase would generate an economic impact of $1.6 billion and create more than 7,600 jobs, a recent study by the University of North Florida found. But the city council has been mixed in its response with some in support and others either still skeptical or completely against the project.
Councilman Al Ferarro, who is running for mayor, said he worries about going over budget and the potential for project delays.
A city council committee heard from members of Curry’s staff and Nat Ford, the CEO of JTA.
During his comments, Ford addressed the elephant in the room — the Skyway.
“From the moment I stepped here in Jacksonville, from both sides, I was getting strong opinions around what was called the Skyway,” Ford said. “Some were saying tear it down, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s not useful, and then I had another group of folks who were on the other side saying, ‘Hey Nat, when can you get it to go to the airport, when can you connect it to the stadium?’”
More than one-third of the money raised from the proposed 6-cent hike in Jacksonville’s gas tax would be used to expand the Skyway -- the underutilized automated downtown transportation system.
Ford said the gas tax money would go towards converting and expanding the Skyway to an autonomous vehicle (AV) network that would include elevated and on-road transportation. The multi-phased project is being called the Ultimate Urban Circulator (U2C).
“We have this infrastructure that’s already in place, how can we leverage that infrastructure and that investment that has already been made, and marry it up with this new technology that was being developed by the private sector. So we started down the path of the U2C,” Ford said.
Ford said it would cost about $246 million to convert the elevated rails to accommodate the AVs and another $130 million to extend the network at ground level. The network would expand to UF Health, Riverside, San Marco and Brooklyn areas. Ford said the gas tax would give JTA the best opportunity to complete the project.
Councilmember LeAnna Cumber said she is against the Skyway extension plan as it was presented.
“When you are faced with that and say we’re going to take 40% of all the money that’s coming in to put this autonomous vehicle system downtown. It defies logic,” Cumber said. “Why would you not focus on the real issues and the real issue of the bus system. Why not increase the number of buses why not increase the routes.”
The Florida Times-Union reported Wednesday that the Skyway conversion costs in downtown Jacksonville have risen by 40% in just two years.
Council president Tommy Hazouri raised concerns about inflation if the project moves forward.
“Speed is our best hedge against inflation,” Ford responded.
City council is expected to hold public hearings about the gas tax increase in May. Special council meeting April 29, second May 12 where a vote could take place.
If approved, the first projects would be included in next year’s budget.