County considers sales tax to finance road upkeep

St. Louis County is about to take a big step toward financing roads — a sales tax.

The higher gasoline tax, which was supposed to alleviate much of the problem of transportation funding, hasn’t worked. People don’t drive as much as they once did and vehicles get better mileage. Neither has the massive economic stimulus of the great recession, the $10 registration fee, and the constitutional amendment of 2006 that dedicated motor vehicle sales taxes to transportation projects.

The Duluth News Tribune reports the county will set a hearing date today in Hibbing to consider the funding, which is increasingly part of a hodgepodge of options local governments have been given to try to keep up roads.

Turning to the sales tax to finance roads is a relatively new idea in Minnesota.

Commissioners in July 2013 voted 6-0 against imposing a $10 per-year registration fee. But, as the News Tribune first reported last month, there’s newfound interest in the sales tax option to bolster efforts across the county’s 3,000 miles of roads and 600 bridges.

“We’ve had the chance to talk to commissioners about the real need we have out there, with one-third of our paved roads rated in poor or very poor condition,’’ (St. Louis County Administrator Kevin) Gray said Monday.

Abbey Bryduck, transportation policy analyst for the Association of Minnesota Counties, said six of Minnesota’s 87 counties have adopted the half-cent sales tax option — Becker, Beltrami, Douglas, Olmstead, Rice and Wadena. About 47 counties have adopted the annual registration fee.

There are some hurdles. Most of the sales tax money would be collected in Duluth, but few of the county roads are located in Duluth.

Not everyone is on board.

“I’ll vote for the public hearing. But I can’t in good conscious vote to raise the sales tax for everyone in the county until we have a frank discussion on how we are going to get that $17 million back over the next 10 years,’’ said County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, who represents western Duluth. “We’re already about to raise property taxes 2.9 percent. Maybe it’s time to trim our sails and not raise any more taxes.”

If approved, the sales tax in Duluth would jump to 7.875 percent.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Do I even need to read the article to find out that cutting other spending isn’t on the table?

  • RF Jim

    A cruel side effect of dedicating the registration/gas tax to roads is that roads have to live solely on the registration/gas tax. There’s going to be conflict in a county where 80% of the roads are where 20% of the people live. Someone’s subsidizing someone else.

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      No they don’t. Any non-dedicated revenue can be spent on roads, if we choose to spend it there.

      Maybe we should take a cue from the arts and cultural heritage amendment and tweak the constitution so gas tax revenue must supplement general fund road spending, not supplant it.