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Godofredo Vasquez, Democrat-Herald

Unless we completely miss our guess, Albany voters will get the chance this May to decide if they want to pay an additional 5 cents per gallon on motor vehicle fuel to help repair city roads.

The matter is on the City Council's agenda for a special meeting on Wednesday. Considering the fact that Albany city officials, including Mayor Sharon Konopa, have been working on a possible local fuel tax for years, we would be surprised if the council decided against referring the question to voters.

We also would be surprised if voters in May actually approved the increase, but we have been surprised that voters in other jurisdictions around Oregon have approved similar increases in local fuel taxes.

But those votes occurred before the state Legislature in 2017 passed a multibillion-dollar bill to pay for badly needed improvements to roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure around the state. Part of the money for that work comes from an increase in the state's fuel tax. 

And it came before a proposal from the Trump administration to invest at least some federal money in infrastructure improvements. That proposal would be funded by — well, it's not at all clear how that would be funded, but the notion of a 25-cent increase in the federal gas tax is picking up some momentum. 

So the timing isn't really all that great for the Albany proposal. But, to be fair, no time is ideal to ask taxpayers to cough up even more dough. So you might as well ask at a time when the economy appears to be chugging along reasonably well, as it seems to be now.

And it's not as if Albany officials and motorists just noticed that the streets in town could use a little work: Konopa said discussions in Albany about the need to pay for additional street maintenance have been continuing for at least 20 years. 

"We hear constant concerns over our local residential streets," she said. If voters approve the tax, Albany city councilors have said they would designate the money raised for use on residential streets, which could be a savvy election strategy. (In fact, the more specific city officials can be about where money raised will be spent, the more likely it is that voters will be favorably disposed on the question: That's a lesson the council can take away from the successful bond measure floated last year by the Greater Albany Public Schools district. For that matter, a focus on specifics helped the city's own bond measure for new headquarters for the Police Department and Fire Department finally get over the hump with voters.)

Konopa said she has approached officials in Linn and Benton counties and the city of Corvallis about the possibility of a regional gas tax. In such a case, each government would collect revenues raised from the additional tax, but the measure would be on the ballot in each jurisdiction at the same election. A regional approach in theory would reduce the possibility that motorists would fill up at a location that didn't assess the extra tax.

But the talks with the other governments didn't make much progress, Konopa said, and so Albany is considering moving ahead on its own, betting that gas prices in Albany are low enough to keep people from driving to Lebanon or Corvallis to fill up.

Konopa admits that a gas tax isn't a perfect solution, but notes that every potential revenue scheme has drawbacks: "We will never find a funding tool that is fully fair across the board," she said.

But at least putting it on the ballot gives voters a choice: "If the voters do not want to pay the tax, then they have the option to vote no," Konopa said.

And that's what we suspect voters will say. But we see little harm in putting the measure on the ballot, to find out for sure. (mm)


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