CHAMPAIGN — Facing a $60 million backlog of unfunded road projects, city council members next week could give final approval to a proposed 4 cent-per-gallon gas tax — in what promises to be a close vote.
Local business leaders are opposing the new tax: The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce says it will put more of a burden on businesses, which are already facing higher fuel costs.
The council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Champaign City Building, 102 N. Neil St.
"Nobody wants their taxes to go up," said city council member Tom Bruno. "But I have had a lot of people say that we need to do something to improve our community's roads."
Officials have been falling further and further behind on road improvements as the city continues to develop outward. Bruno was the first council member to propose the tax at the 4 cent rate, which is expected to raise $1.5 million annually in new money for street projects.
That would be enough to at least start chipping away at the $60 million list of road projects. Still, without other measures, it would take 40 years to catch up.
Bruno said a 4 cent-per-gallon rate was his rough approximation of a 1 percent tax. Based on Thursday's gas prices in Champaign, it would be about a 1.18 percent tax.
That is "minimal in comparison to the daily fluctuations in gasoline prices," Bruno said. He speculates that typical drivers would not even notice if they had not heard about it.
But some Chamber of Commerce members are not typical drivers, said Paul Orama, the chamber's public policy manager. One chamber member estimates that a 4 cent gas tax would add $14,000 annually to his fuel costs.
And businesses are already struggling with rising fuel prices, Orama said. "This will just add to that."
Bruno said he does not buy that argument.
"If you're putting that many miles on your trucks on city streets, then all the more argument for wanting to fix the roads," Bruno said.
The Chamber of Commerce is asking the council to vote down the gas tax.
"We would like ... for city council to look into other ways to see how they can address the arterial street costs," Orama said. That means budget cuts in other areas, he suggested, not higher taxes.
The Champaign council's counterpart approved a comparable tax in 2010. Urbana officials agreed to tax gasoline at 2 cents per gallon, and the ordinance was equipped with a 0.4 cent escalator every July until 2013. Urbana's gas tax currently stands at 2.4 cents per gallon and will top out at 3.2 cents next year.
A 5-4 Champaign council poll in November approved putting the new tax to a formal vote. When the issue returned for final approval in December, three council members were absent, including Michael La Due.
La Due had been one of the prior "yes" votes. Since every bill needs at least five affirmative votes to become law, the council had to postpone the final vote.
Bruno said he thinks the five "yes" votes will hold next week.
"This is a jobs program, among other things," Bruno said. "All the money gets spent right here in Champaign. You can't import roads from China."