The Senate Transportation and Energy Committee gave a favorable recommendation Monday to a controversial plan to raise fuel taxes by ten cents per gallon to pay for road and bridge construction and for improvements to the Port of Mobile.
The legislation, HB1, is sponsored by state Representative Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.
Senator Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, is the Chairman of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee.
“I want to thank you for the work that you have done on this bill,” Allen told Poole. “I know that you have done many, many hours of work on this.”
This is a difficult issue,” Poole said. “This is about our present, and more important our future.”
“This is about my children and your children and all the children of the state of Alabama,” Poole said. “We have to do something as a state. It has been 27 years since Alabama has increased its motor fuels tax. In that 27 years only seven states have not increased their motor fuels taxes.”
“Alabama motor fuels taxes are dead last in the Southeast,” Poole said. “States in the Southeast and beyond realize that the federal government will not come and fix our roads and bridges.”
Poole said that in 2012 the motor fuels tax brought in $615 million. That has declined to $589 million even though there are more cars on the road as vehicles have become more fuel efficient.
“That is unsustainable,” Poole said. “We have over 16,000 bridges in Alabama; of those 7,000 are over 50 years old.”
Poole said that Alabama has the sixth highest traffic mortality rate in the country. “Our citizens are dying on our roads because of our inaction.”
Poole said that Senator Richard Shelby (R) and the Alabama delegation has created an opportunity to improve the Port of Mobile. Not only did they put the funds in place; but they carved out an exception in the law so that we only have to provide 25 percent of the cost of the project instead of 50 percent.
“That will allow us to bring more ships in and out of the Port as well as be able to handle the post-Panimax container ships.”
“There is not plan B,” Poole said. “There is no better return than investing in our infrastructure. That return on investment is monumental.”
“This is the moment, this is the opportunity,” Poole said. “This passed with 84 votes.”
“There will be no do overs,” Poole said. “I assure you that I am not doing this again.”
Poole said that the proposal has a $100 fee on hybrid vehicles and a $200 fee on plug-in electric vehicles, which “Ensures that our electric and hybrid vehicles are also contributing to maintenance of roads and bridges.”
HB2 will raise the price of fuel six cents per gallon on October 1, 2019; go up to eight cents on October 1, 2020; and to ten cents on October 1, 2021.
Poole was asked about the inflation protection in the bill.
Other states have already passed something like this Poole said. “We had the benefit to learn from those models. We needed something that was simple, clean, conservative, and reasonable. First it will look at the National Highway Construction Cost Index. Number two it can only adjust every two years, and number three it can only go up or down one penny.
Poole said that the funds have to go to separate accounts so that they can be audited every year. The state’s portions will go in to te Rebuild Alabama Fund. “We do not want these funds co-mingled with the existing Alabama Road and Bridge Fund.”
“These funds can not be used for salaries,” Poole said. They can not be used for the purchase or maintenance of any equipment, unless they are installed as part of the project. They can not be used for any buildings, unless they are installed as part of the project.
Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said, “I want to thank all of the people behind this effort. It has been well planned, very thorough, I think we have before us a very powerful piece of legislation.”
“We should be proud of what we are doing here today,” Marsh said. “It tells the rest of the country that we are serious about infrastructure.”
State Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said “I want to offer my appreciation to you Chairman Poole. Is there anything in this legislation associated with an increased fee for buying a car tag?”
Poole answered, “No, there is not.”
Poole postulated that critics are misreading a part of the bill that is a restating of an existing code section.
Sen. Marsh motioned that the bill receive a favorable report. Sen. Livingston seconded that and the committee passed the bill.
Several opponents had requested a public hearing on the bill; but that request was denied by Chairman Allen.
The Committee also gave a favorable report to HB1, which is the companion bill to the accountability bill increasing legislative oversight over road projects that passed the Senate on Friday.
Senator Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, is carrying the bill in the Senate for Rep. Poole.
“It is an honor to work alongside him,” Chambliss said of Poole.
HB3 establishes the bonding authority for the Port of Mobile project. It also received a favorable report.
Reporters asked Marsh if the special session would wrap up on Tuesday.
“I sure hope that we wrap it up Tuesday,” Marsh said. Senators are going to offer amendments; but I don’t think any of those amendments have legs.
The Alabama Political Reporter asked: You have expressed interest in running for U.S. Senate next year, do you think that your support for raising the gas tax will be used against you if you decide to run?
“I would be surprised if it weren’t; but I can’t worry about that,” Marsh answered. “This is critical for the future of the state. I am all for it.”
“We are still the lowest cumulative taxed state in the country even after this passes,” Marsh added.
Sonny Brasfield with the Alabama County Commission Association told reporters that if the plan passes there will be road work happening in all 67 counties by this time next year.
The Senate will take up the bills on Tuesday. If they pass, it will be a major win for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) who has made improving Alabama’s infrastructure a priority.
“The Senate has to go through the process,” Poole said. “We will see how the process goes.”