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Pioneer Editorial: Wheelage tax at least puts cash in roads

Necessity is the mother of invention, the old saying goes. That seems to be the case in finding new revenue sources to help shore up a woefully inadequate road and bridge infrastructure.

The Legislature has failed to come to grips with adequate transportation funding, not able to budget the state gasoline tax, set at 20 cents a gallon in 1988 and unmoved since. And when lawmakers a year ago did agree to a major transportation package which called for a 10-cent boost in the tax over two years, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.

Then the botched up an effort to dedicate more funds to transportation, in a ballot question before voters this fall to constitutionally dedicate 100 percent of the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation -- half now goes to the general fund. But attached to that are provisions that "no more than" 60 percent go to roads and "at least 40 percent" to transit. In essence, a metro-dominated Legislature could vote to send it all to buses and trains, and nothing to northern roads. The effort to simply set hard 60 percent and 40 percent marks this session didn't pass, so we're still in limbo whether to support the ballot question.

So what's a county to do?

A 1972 state law allows seven metro counties to adopt "wheelage taxes," of up to $5 a vehicle paid annually with license tab renewals. It hadn't ever been used, but strapped counties are now looking at it as the mother of invention. Anoka and Dakota counties adopted the tax in June, and Scott and Washington counties may do the same yet this summer. The wheelage tax is good, they say, because it carries no strings other than having to be used for transportation within the county.

The Association of Minnesota Counties next year plans to ask the Legislature to give that authority to all 87 counties, and raise the limit from $5 to $20. With drivers in our area depending on personal vehicles for most transportation and needing to drive vast distances, a set wheelage tax seems fairer than a gas tax hike which can hurt low-income families which dependent upon their car to get to jobs, school or groceries.

And while a wheelage tax might not raise millions of dollars in Beltrami County -- the $5 tax is estimated to raise $1.5 million a year each for Dakota and Anoka counties -- it's still more money for roads and bridges.

Beltrami County commissioners took a road tour on Tuesday, and saw many roads that need help, and bridges that need replacing. If the Legislature can't come to grips with a growing infrastructure problem, then perhaps counties should be given the chance to seek another funding option. We know they'll put the money to good use.