‘Wheelage’ tax passed to keep up Ramsey County roads

A pothole butts up against a recently repaired patch of road on White Bear Avenue, a county road that may be repaired in short order thanks in part to a new Ramsey County wheelage tax. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to introduce a $10 “wheelage” tax to improve the county’s ailing roads.

The $10 per-vehicle charge, added onto license plate tab fees, will bring in an estimated $3.8 million dollars to fund major construction projects, according to a statement from the county.

Jim Tolaas, director of the county Public Works department, called the new funds “a major infusion that will actually make a meaningful difference that people will be able to see.”

The funds will help the county start work on a backlog of 58 miles -- $26 million worth -- of road projects. The list of deferred road repairs has been growing steadily, Tolaas said. He predicts the new tax will help shorten that list.

In recent years, the public works department was limited to tackling the worst of the worst, Tolaas said.

“While we’re picking away at the worst ones, other roadways are deteriorating,” he said. “The list has been growing much faster than we’ve been able to make the repairs. Roadways, unfortunately, stay on that list for a very long time.”

Until now, the county relied primarily on state gas tax funds to do road repairs. But only a fraction of a penny for every dollar collected in Ramsey County comes back, according to a statement from the county board of commissioners. To supplement this funding source, the county has increased property taxes.

Through 2012, the county spent an average $2 million a year on major construction projects, Tolaas said. In 2013, it spent another $1 million gained through bonding.

The new tax will raise construction funds to about $6 million a year.

Commissioners weigh in

Rafael Ortega, District 5 commissioner, said the state of the county’s roads is an open secret to drivers.

“Over the last four years, I don’t care where you go, it’s something everybody knows,” he said. “The streets are in really bad shape.”

Jim McDonough, commissioner for District 6, said all the commissioners have heard increased complaints from residents in recent years.

With the new funding source, “people will notice the difference,” he said.

Victoria Reinhardt, District 7, touts the new wheelage fee as a more direct means of funding for road projects.

She and other commissioners said the tax can be looked at as a user fee.

“It’s a fee on cars,” she said, “and the money that gets raised goes right back into fixing (roads).”

“$10 a vehicle is small compared to when you have to go out and buy new tires,” she added.

Both Reinhardt and Ortega said they hope they can eventually shift some of the road funding burden off property taxes.

McDonough suggested the funds will help the county keep up the roads it’s responsible for in the city of St. Paul. These roads have been neglected, he said, because inner-city roads are often more challenging to repair.

His first priority: White Bear Avenue from Minnehaha Avenue to Interstate 94. He said White Bear was so bad last spring the county had to scrape together $30,000 for emergency repairs.

Tolaas admitted much of the damage to roads is not due to passenger cars and trucks, which will be slated for the wheelage tax, but rather large commercial trucks. These hefty vehicles do “dramatically more damage to the system” in terms of road repair, he said.

“But they pay the license fees accordingly,” he noted. “They pay very high license fees compared to an automobile.”

Tolaas said that a more nuanced fee scale for the wheelage tax was not possible, due to the capabilities of the state department of motor vehicles’ computing system. Currently, the counties that charge wheelage tax have the choice of the $10 fee or nothing. In 2018, he said, the DMV anticipates adjusting fees to each county’s preference.

Overall, the roads could be a lot worse, Ortega said. But they have plenty of room for improvement.

“They’ve got to be addressed somehow and this is a good vehicle,” he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

The Ramsey County highway network includes 91 bridges, 325 traffic signals, more than 30,000 signs, more than 9,000 drainage structures and extensive water resource treatment systems. The system is one of the c\county’s largest assets, with an estimated value of more than $1 billion.

Currently, Anoka, Washington, Dakota, Scott and Carver counties collect a wheelage tax. In addition to Ramsey County, neighboring Hennepin County voted Wednesday to collect a wheelage tax. The wheelage tax will be collected starting Jan. 1, 2014.


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