Work has begun on six construction sites in Eau Claire County as a result of funding from a $30 vehicle registration fee implemented at the beginning of the year.
The fee, commonly referred to as a wheel tax, was approved by the Eau Claire County Board last July to limit borrowing for road construction funding and improve county roads. It results in Eau Claire County residents paying an additional $30 for annual vehicle registrations on top of the $75 charged by the state every year.
According to Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson, the county has received about $1.4 million from the wheel tax so far this year, meaning it is on pace to raise its projected annual tax of $2.39 million. The money raised by the fee will total around one-third of the overall highway construction budget.
A map listing all of the road projects funded by the wheel tax was released on the Eau Claire County website last week. It shows six active projects and seven in design phases that are scheduled to be completed in the next year or two.
Johnson and Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf appreciated the opportunity to show tangible results illustrating how the county is using the fee money.
Two of the active projects entail work to improve bridges. Johnson prioritized improving bridges this year because a closed bridge causes more issues than a rough road.
“Once we allocate all the funds to the bridge needs, whatever is left goes to the highway projects based off the largest fiscal impact projects,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the bridges likely would have been worked on this year by borrowing municipal bonds, but he said most of the road mileage projects would not have received construction this year without the vehicle registration fee. The seven projects in the design phase would have been delayed indefinitely as well.
Schauf said the fee provided a much better option than borrowing municipal bonds, although it is not a perfect situation.
“The ideal number would actually take and eliminate all our debt,” Schauf said.
Johnson and Schauf have received three main types of feedback: people who support the measure; residentts unhappy with the tax who understand the reasoning after receiving more information about what it will be spent toward; and those who wholeheartedly disapprove of the fee.
Eau Claire County Board member Carl Anton is in the first category, calling it a necessary aspect that should result in lower long-term road construction spending.
Anton was one of 20 members who supported the wheel tax last year. He said it involved a choice between working on roads now or delaying construction, which is more costly in the long run.
“It is cheaper to maintain the roads than it is to rebuild them later,” Anton said.
Eau Claire County Board member Pat LaVelle is part of the third camp, calling it an extremely unfair tax. He was one of nine who voted against the vehicle registration fee proposal last July.
LaVelle did not agree with taxing vehicles weighing less than 8,000 pounds when larger trucks cause the most road damage.
In LaVelle’s view, the county is not working on more projects because of wheel tax funding but rather is paying in a different manner for construction that would have occurred in the near future regardless.
“They would’ve done the [projects] anyway, more than likely,” LaVelle said. “If not this year, they would’ve done them in two years.”
LaVelle added his displeasure that most of the fees are paid for by Eau Claire residents, but none of the city roads are being fixed by the wheel tax, which only applies to county roadways.
The wheel tax is on track to raise the estimated amount of $2.39 million, but uncertainty still exists for Johnson, who has factored in a 10% margin of error on that total when deciding how much to spend on construction this year.
So far, the fee seems to have resulted in more construction in 2019. In a normal year, Johnson said the county’s goal is to work on at least 18 miles of road, a target it met in two of the previous three years. Eau Claire County appears on pace to meet that number this year after already working on 16.45 miles in the first seven months of 2019. Johnson expects the total number to be around 23 miles at the end of this year.
The overall road rating in the county stands at 5.4 on the PASER scale, a number Johnson hopes will improve to 6 within the next eight years. PASER has a system that rates pavement from 1 through 10, with roads between 5 and 6 being in fair condition.
“At 6, you haven’t crossed the point of no return,” Johnson said. “You can salvage that roadway, but once you get to a 5, now you’re starting to look at, ‘OK, we let it go a little too long.’”
Schauf called that a key number for local and regional drivers passing through the area because the roads connect many parts of the state and to the Twin Cities area.
“There’s a huge element of how the county’s system helps connect other overlying taxing jurisdictions,” Schauf said.
The county bridges are rated on a scale of 0 to 100 on a different system. Johnson said the current conditions are around 78 and he hopes to see it increase to 80 within the next six years.
There is no sunset date for the wheel tax, although Johnson hopes it can potentially end once the bridges improve to a rating of 80 and roads bump up to a rating of 6.
Schauf isn’t sure how long it will last, but she does not foresee changes to the fee anytime soon.
“The idea is, ‘Let’s put something in place that will at least begin to mitigate this ongoing borrowing that we have in order to maintain our roadways,’” Schauf said. “I don’t anticipate that we would see significant changes year over year into the future.”