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Addrien Marx sells gasoline in Seeley Lake, and the businesswoman pays an extra 3 cents or so to transport each gallon of fuel all the way to her Rovero's Conoco.

So Marx, who has owned the gas station since 1995, doesn't like the idea of paying another 2 cents for sidewalks and trails. Unless, of course, she can ask the Missoula City Council to pay her sewer bill.

"I cannot imagine one voter for any reason outside the city limits to help fund their sidewalks. There will be pure revolt," Marx said Friday.

A council subcommittee has been brainstorming new ways to pay for sidewalks, and one idea is a local option gas tax of 1 cent a gallon or 2 cents at the most. The money would be shared between the city and the county.

The discussion is taking place because people want a lot more sidewalks in the city, but they're expensive. City Council members, who approve sidewalk assessments, got tired of charging property owners with corner lots $10,000 or $15,000 to build them.

The gas tax, "for public highways, streets and roads," seems to have support on the council, at least in preliminary discussions, and it's getting some support from citizens. In a letter, Derek Goldman, of Missoula proper, supported a gas tax and said sidewalks should be viewed as road infrastructure.

"(Councilwoman Marilyn Marler's) proposal attempts to internalize the public safety cost of roads, ensuring that when we choose to drive, that we are responsible for at least a portion of the cost of ensuring that those who choose not to drive have a safe place to commute," Goldman wrote.

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But the city can't adopt the gas tax on its own. A local option gas tax would require approval by voters countywide. The Missoula County commissioners can adopt a resolution that puts the matter on the ballot, but Commissioner Jean Curtiss said the board is cautious about the move and wants to do more research.

Montana Code Annotated 7-14-303 offers different ways the city and county can split the revenue. Councilors have generally suggested putting city funds toward sidewalks and seeing if the county wanted to put its share toward trails.

"I think there's just a lot of discussion that needs to be had, and some input from our rural folks, too," Curtiss said.

For one thing, she said the county made an attempt to pass a local option gas tax maybe in the late 1980s, and it tanked: "I think it was a pretty resounding no."

In recent years, the economy plunged, the price of gas went up, and the city adopted new taxes for parks and roads.

"So the climate has kind of changed," Curtiss said. "What we talked about is we definitely would have to have some public conversation, and it was probably a good idea to do a survey."

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She said the city and county are both thinking it's a good idea to poll citizens in the near future. In an earlier survey, residents expressed wide support for things like hiking paths, paved trails and bike trails, she said.

And they felt comfortable saying they'd be willing to contribute $20 or so a year toward things like trails. But Curtiss said 2 cents a gallon is more nebulous.

"I still have to really think about that. What does that mean to my budget? How much gas do I use? It's just not as easy to see and put your arms around as seeing a solid number like $20," she said.

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She also said 2 cents on a gallon of diesel might make a much bigger difference for someone who lives in Condon or Lolo than it would for someone who lives in city limits and gets to take the bus or ride a bike. Then, there's business folks she wants to hear from.

"Tell me, if you have an excavation business, how much money do you spend on gas, what does 2 cents mean to you, and do you think it's worth it?" Curtiss said.

At this point, the public discussions are taking place in the Public Works Committee of the Missoula City Council. A subsequent meeting on the topic has yet to be scheduled, but councilors are considering several other options to pay for sidewalks. At some point, the committee will make a recommendation to the full council.

 

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