CHAMPAIGN — Saying the money will start to chip away at $60 million worth of desperately needed road improvements, the city council on Tuesday night voted to begin collecting 4 cents per gallon of gas sold in Champaign starting in May.
The new tax had both its advocates and detractors, but a slim 5-4 majority of council members ultimately decided that crumbling city streets need more funding.
"For me, this is a matter of a shared sacrifice," said council member Tom Bruno. "It's a matter of personal responsibility."
Bruno was the first council member to begin circulating a petition to get the discussion about a 4-cent tax rolling last year. Officials expect the new revenue to total about $1.5 million per year, all of which is required by ordinance to fund transportation improvements.
Bruno called it a jobs bill — work for local laborers and local paving companies.
"This is building our roads and highways for our children and our grandchildren," he said.
A key project for the city in the near future is improvements to the bridge carrying Windsor Road over Interstate 57. The Illinois Department of Transportation has said it is willing to improve the bridge and complete the overpass with sidewalks and bicycle lanes, but the approaches on either side are the city's funding responsibility.
That's just one in a long line of road projects the city has lined up.
"While those expenses are rising, we have every indication that help from Springfield, the home of the unfunded mandate, is not going to be forthcoming," said council member Michael La Due, who voted for the tax.
Representatives of two local paving companies that stand to get those contracts spoke in favor of the tax Tuesday night.
"We have a huge investment in the city street network, and our delayed maintenance will make it cost more in the long run," said John Peisker, vice president of O'Neil Brothers construction company.
The tax also had opponents in the audience Tuesday night. Mark Gray, a regional director for Thornton's, said it will hurt businesses and drivers alike.
"It does drive the price of gasoline up," he said.
And council member Will Kyles, who had voted in favor of the tax in an informal straw poll last year, switched his vote Tuesday night.
"I'm not against the actual idea of better roads, it's the timing of it all," Kyles said.
Kyles said he sees other city taxes and fees rising — like a coming stormwater utility fee — and also sees residents struggling with the economy.
"It's one priority at a time in this type of environment," Kyles said.
Council member Kyle Harrison changed his vote, too, from a "no" last year to a "yes" Tuesday night. He said he has trouble wrapping his head around that $60 million backlog and the magnitude of unfunded road improvements, but the 4-cent gas tax will be a start.
"We're trying to throw a toothpick at a bear here," he said.