Car owners in Hennepin County can dig out another $10 to register their vehicles every year.

On Tuesday, the new wheelage fee appeared to be headed for County Board approval. Four commissioners — a majority — expressed support for the tax, which would raise almost $9 million annually for roads and related projects such as traffic lights. They'll vote on it next Tuesday.

Two years ago, the board rejected a proposed $5-per-vehicle wheelage tax. But now Commissioner Jan Callison, who voted against it then, said she is "inclined" to vote "yes."

New Commissioner Linda Higgins also gave a wheelage tax her approval, although her predecessor on the board had been a "no" vote. And Commissioners Peter McLaughlin and Gail Dorfman remain supporters, as they were two years ago.

McLaughlin said the money would help "make up for neglected maintenance and modernization" of the county's 2,200 lane miles of road, making for a "smoother, safer ride" and getting "highways and bridges up to Hennepin County standards."

While supporters such as McLaughlin characterize the tax as a means to improve roads, opponents describe it as an unnecessary money grab made possible by the Legislature during the recent session.

How opponents see it

Board Chairman Mike Opat, who opposes a wheelage tax, said it would hit those least able to pay the hardest. It would amount to about a 20 percent increase in the annual registration fee for those who drive older, cheaper cars. In contrast, the annual fee on a new Cadillac Escalade would be about $800. "There is no more regressive tax to come before this board than this one," Opat said.

Like Opat, Commissioner Jeff Johnson said he plans to vote no again. If roads are a concern, the county should use money already collected through the property tax levy, Opat and Jeff Johnson said.

Commissioner Randy Johnson was not at the meeting and hasn't said how he will vote.

At a public hearing Tuesday afternoon, only two people, one of them a lobbyist, showed up to testify.

Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, which pushed the Legislature to allow the tax, spoke for it, posing safe roads as a county requirement. She said Brown, Rice and Mower counties already have passed a wheelage tax. Among others considering it are Olmsted, Houston, Dodge, Faribault, Waseca and Itasca, she said.

Frank Lorenz, an Edina resident who frequently speaks at board meetings, is against the tax. "You don't need another $9 million from taxpayers to pursue your profligate dream of gold-plated infrastructure," he said.

Other counties' plans

Until this spring's legislative session, only the seven Twin Cities metro counties had the authority to levy a $5-per-vehicle tax. Now all 87 counties do.

In the Twin Cities, Anoka, Washington, Carver, Scott and Dakota already collect the $5 wheelage tax. All but Anoka County have indicated that they will allow the tax to increase to $10. The Anoka County Board is expected to consider a proposal next week to repeal the tax.

The Ramsey County Board plans to discuss the tax next week. "There seemed to be some interest in moving forward with it" at a recent board workshop on the tax, Commissioner Jim McDonough said.

Opat called the legislative action a "cynical opportunity by the state to tell the counties, 'go raise your own taxes.' "

Fellow opponent Jeff Johnson said, "If we cant find a way to keep our roads safe, efficient and modern within our $1.8 billion budget, then we're not very good decision-makers as a board."

But Dorfman said the money could be used to replace traffic lights dangling on wires over intersections, and other things.

Callison asked county staffers to tell her what road projects could be delayed to use some of the money for property tax relief. She said she views the proposed additional spending as "reasonable" and "appropriate."