County steering for wheelage tax increase

Road system projected to fall below standards in three years


Clint Riese
News Editor

The state of Washington County’s road system is on pace to fall under its designated minimum standard in 2016. Existing funding is vulnerable – or even tenuous – and the county board does not want to allocate additional property tax dollars for road improvements.

So where does that leave county officials? Eyeing additional user fees, the Forest Lake City Council learned last Monday, April 8.

District 1 Commissioner Fran Miron and County Engineer Wayne Sandberg presented detailed information on the impending funding pickle and asked the council to consider a resolution of support for increasing the county’s wheelage tax as a primary revenue source for road improvements.

The wheelage tax, utilized by five of the seven metro counties to which it is available, is currently capped at $5 per vehicle. Legislation is in the works that would expand its availability statewide and allow counties to raise the fee.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners is openly supporting that legislation and even passed a resolution last Tuesday that tags user fees and dedicated taxes, rather than property taxes, as the equitable funding sources.

“My sense of the county board is there really isn’t anyone there that has an appetite for increasing property taxes,” Miron told the council. “This provides a means to generate some additional funding for roads.”

Designed for Consumption

Washington County analyzes its 300 miles of roads through a pavement condition index (PCI) that assigns a rating of 1-100 to each road. Roads are driven and studied every three years and an estimate is assigned in the other years.

Graphs courtesy of Washington County
Graphs courtesy of Washington County

An average rating of 72 is the minimum deemed acceptable by the county. Engineers desire no road, individually, to dip below a rating of 40. The system average fell from 79 in 2006 to 75 in 2011. The county predicts it will hit 72 in 2016.

The downward trend is especially concerning because of the amount needed to stop or reverse it. Sandberg said the county needs an additional $3 million to $5 million per year to flatten the curve or $5 million to $7 million to send the rating upward.

“At the end of the day, roads are designed to be consumable,” Sandberg said. “We know they’re going to wear out based on traffic patterns. So the question is: How fast can we get out there and fix them and repair them?”

Rather than use a “worst-first” system to determine each summer’s handful of road improvement projects, the county endorses a “right road, right time” philosophy. That method takes into account cost, condition, proximity to similar roads and other factors in an effort to maximize about $4.2 million in annual funding estimated for 2013-17.

“If all we ever did was fix just the roads that were in the worst shape and get them back to (the highest-rated range), we’d never catch up,” Sandberg said.

The projected annual pavement budget includes $1.2 million in funding from the property tax levy, $1 million in state aid, $1 million in wheelage tax proceeds and $1 million in program aid (money the state pays the county for providing certain services).

FR_CountyTax 2This year, the county received a one-time injection of $1.2 million in federal funding. The roads on deck for rehabilitation this summer are part of CR-4 and county state aid highways 7, 9, 13 and 76. Locally, work on CR-4 will span from the county line in Hugo east to TH-61. Work on CSAH-7 will span from the county line in Grant east through Hugo and May Township to CSAH-15.

No roads in the northern half of the county are slated in the 2014 or 2015 pavement program. Low-rated local roads include CR-91 (Lofton Avenue) in Scandia and part of CR-4 from May Township east to Marine on St. Croix.

No Action Yet

The Forest Lake City Council did not tip its hand last week. Mayor Chris Johnson suggested the county’s request be placed on a future agenda and action could be taken at that time.

Councilman Ben Winnick said that if the wheelage tax is increased, he would want the proceeds to go to roadwork above and beyond what is currently planned and not be a substitute for other funding.

According to the resolution Miron presented, the county’s wheelage tax has funded over 20 miles of improvements since 2007. He said the county’s platform supporting a wheelage tax increase makes more sense than increasing property taxes. The latter is currently the county’s only option for increased revenue.

“The issue is we’re on a trend downward, so we’re going to have to invest in roads and bridges if we want to turn that trend around,” Miron said. “We’re going to have to come up with those dollars somehow if we’re going to make progress on that.”