Alternative energy could hurt city's gas tax

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It's rather common nowadays to hear about alternative energy sources and how they could be better for the environment and your wallet.

Now some members of Jacksonville's City Council are trying to figure out what they could mean for the city's bottom line as it collects gas tax dollars.

Florida's first gas station offering liquefied natural gas opened Wednesday on the Westside at Interstate 10 and Lane Avenue.

Most people won't use the gas, but a number of tractor-trailers and similar vehicles are converting to use natural gas because it's cheaper and more efficient.

Clean Energy, the company that opened the station, says Jacksonville is at the beginning of what it calls "America's natural gas highway," which extends to California.

City leaders are watching this closely because this type of fuel is not subject to local gas taxes.

Eventually more people will be using energy sources like it, and that could mean less money to the city.

The council is in the middle of a debate to renew the local gas tax, a 6 cent tax on gas that comes back to Jacksonville to be used on roads. The gas tax expires in two years, but some want to extend it now. Others say wait and see what happens with this technology.

Every time drivers gas up in Jacksonville, they're helping fill up the local gas tax coffers. It's a local option gas tax and it comes to about $5 million a year for the city to invest in roads. That tax money has dropped off lately because of more fuel-efficient cars, and people are driving less and, in turn, spending less on gas.

The gas tax expires in 2016, but there is a move in City Council to extend it for 20 more years.

"I think there is a whole myriad of reasons why for extending it," council President Bill Gulliford said.

He said roads here are in bad shape, and this is a funding source to fix them that the city should not give up. Gulliford is preparing a list of projects that will benefit from the tax.

"Some of the money will come back to the city for street maintenance," he said. "We have been pulling what maintenance we have been doing, we've been pulling it from the general fund. So this would free up general fund money because we will have another source for maintaining streets."

Gulliford said Jacksonville is listed as one of the most dangerous places for pedestrians and bicyclists. He says by bonding that tax money, it could be used to fund more bike lanes and sidewalks, something the city needs now.

Councilman Stephen Joost, however, says wait because the tax does not expire until two more years, so why commit now?

"What is the rush?" he said. "As you can see, the industry is changing before our very eyes. I think we should wait the two years to see what the impact will be to the gas tax."

Joost said the city is relying on old data and might do better not to lock in on this tax structure but instead look for alternative funding sources.

Mayor Alvin Brown agrees.

"The thing about the gas tax is, think about it -- it does not expire until August of 2016," he said. "To me, there are lots of things that should be done. A lot of studies out there, new opportunities on how do you fund."

The discussion is in comittee now.

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