County considers wheelage, sales tax optionsMuch of Carlton County’s approximately 71 miles of non-state-aid road system is in deteriorating condition, and the cost of keeping up with repairs is becoming a greater challenge every year. With that in mind, county commissioners are weighing a couple of options to offset the county tax levy — but each presents uncertainties of its own.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Much of Carlton County’s approximately 71 miles of non-state-aid road system is in deteriorating condition, and the cost of keeping up with repairs is becoming a greater challenge every year. With that in mind, county commissioners are weighing a couple of options to offset the county tax levy — but each presents uncertainties of its own.
Transportation Director Mike Tardy presented information at the meeting of the Carlton County Board on Tuesday about the wheelage tax option, made possible through legislation passed during the most recent session of the Minnesota State Legislature.
In essence, Tardy said, the legislation grants all counties in the state the option to collect a wheelage tax, amounting to $10 annually for each vehicle owned and/or stored within the county. He said the revenue potential of the tax is some $320,000 per year to be used toward construction, repair and maintenance of county roads.
The deadline for the county to decide if it will opt in to the wheelage tax is Aug. 1.
Commissioner Bob Olean questioned if the revenue raised through a wheelage tax can be utilized for township roads as well. Tardy said his understanding is that it is to be used “at the county’s discretion,” but he is uncertain if that means it can be used for transportation projects on anything other than county roads. He offered to find out that information and report back to the board.
Paul Gassert, auditor/treasurer, suggested that a greater challenge would be to prioritize which roadways would be first on the list for upgrades if additional funding becomes available through a wheelage tax.
Olean indicated he would like to see more input from county residents and have more of a “game plan” in place for road projects before taking any action on the wheelage tax.
“It’s something I don’t want to just jump into,” he stated.
Commissioner Gary Peterson said some counties passed the wheelage tax as soon as it was approved by the legislature, adding that many of the residents of those counties were reportedly upset because they were given so little opportunity for input. Peterson then suggested the county may want to instead look into the option of a countywide, half-cent sales tax to be used toward funding transportation projects.
“I think it’s important to recognize that we do have some options here,” said Peterson. “I believe a half-cent sales tax would be a fairer tax because others who pass through the county would contribute toward the costs of keeping our roads in good condition.”
Gassert said the most recent estimate by the Association of Minnesota Counties indicates that a half-cent sales tax in the county could stand to raise some $975,000 annually. In order to apply for the right to institute such a tax, the county must apply within a 120-day lead time before the start of the quarter.
The board did not take action on either of the suggestions, opting instead to gather more information.
Another topic of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was the future of the flood-damaged stretch of Highway 210 that runs through the eastern end of Jay Cooke Park. Andy Hubley, regional planning director for the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC) explained that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has commissioned his office to survey the transportation and land use of that stretch of roadway, which has been closed ever since last June’s flooding.
Hubley said his office is also charged with facilitating a series of meetings to solicit public input on the future of that portion of Highway 210, including whether it should be reconstructed as a different type of roadway, if it should be moved, who would be the best entity to supervise the process and whether it should be rebuilt at all.
“At this point, Minnesota (MnDOT) is wide open on it,” he stated.
Hubley said that stretch of Highway 210 is not in as bad a shape as was originally thought, since mud over the roadway created a series of “cover ups” that disguised the actual condition of the road bed. He said the banks above the roadway actually look to be more threatening and unstable due to some serious washouts.
There are no residences along the stretch of Highway 210 under scrutiny. Minnesota Power has two facilities within that area, and many of the park’s trails are accessed from the Grand Portage Trail, also located within the area of the closed road.
“If we keep that road shut down permanently,” said Hubley, “many of the park’s trails will have to become 10-mile loops instead of just two or three. That’s not what everyone wants.”
Statistics on file show that some 700 cars per day traveled through that stretch of Highway 210 in 2011. Hubley said there are currently two alternative options available to those motorists — Beck’s Road to Interstate 35, which amounts to some 21 miles to get to the park entrance in Carlton/Thomson, or County Road 11 from the Fond du Lac neighborhood to Wrenshall, which amounts to about 14 miles. He said the driving distance to take Highway 210 from just east of Oldenburg Point to West Duluth before that stretch was damaged was about 15 miles.
Hubley pointed out that there wasn’t much truck traffic on that segment of Highway 210, and not many commuters used it, either. He indicated the principal concern at this time is for the business people in the area and the lost traffic that might result if the roadway isn’t rebuilt.
Hubley said he plans to meet with representatives of Minnesota Power and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources next week to solicit input from those agencies, and public meetings will be held in August and/or September, with an eye toward wrapping it up by the end of the year. He said the most difficult part of the process is proving to be reaching park users who aren’t from around this area to gain input from them.
Commissioners were supplied with a public comment form to express their views on the future of that segment of Highway 210. Comments can also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In further business, the board agreed to contribute $500 toward the updating of a 2005 study on the extension of a paved pedestrian/bike trail from the city of Scanlon along the St. Louis River to the city of Cloquet. The first phase of the trail, from Carlton to the park-and-ride lot in Scanlon, was completed before the project stalled out due to loss of federal funding and difficulties with right-of-way acquisition along the proposed extension.
In a written request, Trail Committee Chairman Mark Roberts stated the updated study of more feasible options would improve chances of obtaining state and federal grants for construction funds. The cities of Cloquet and Scanlon, the Fond du Lac Reservation and Thomson Township are also being asked to contribute.
Roberts explained that ARDC has submitted a proposal to update the study for $10,000, and the committee has applied for a grant from the Minnesota Coastal Program to fund it. An additional $2,500 in matching funds would be required in the form of a local match, which is why he is requesting participation from area governments. The board’s decision to contribute hinges on approval of the Coastal Program grant.