Rid referendum of wrong projects

Evening traffic creates a steady flow of cars down S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant. Improvements to the highway are included on a list of proposed projects for another half-cent sales tax referendum. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

There is a general recognition in Charleston that booming growth has created major road needs for which the state government hasn’t been able or willing to take responsibility. But there is no consensus that I-526 is among them, and putting it on the list of projects that would be funded by a half-cent increase in the county sales tax will jeopardize the proposed referendum.

County Council should take it off the list before voting to advance the referendum on Tuesday. Similarly, council should insist that other controversial projects, such as the Cross Island Expressway on Johns Island, are not included on the preferred list for funding.

That project has been floated before by its advocates on Kiawah and Seabrook islands and has been met with strong opposition on Johns Island. Any proposals that are submitted as a part of the road improvement plan should generate support, not opposition.

Those would include projects that are indisputably needed, like improvements to S.C. 41, between U.S. 17 and the Wando River, which is listed on the prospectus for the $2.1 billion plan. So is the flyover at U.S. 17 and Main Road, needed to ease congestion to and from Johns Island. Each is a traffic chokepoint that must be improved as soon as possible.

Those are the kind of proposals that will get Charleston County voters out to support a referendum to increase taxes on themselves again. Controversial projects such as I-526 and the Cross Island Expressway will encourage more voters to turn out in opposition to the referendum.

Even taxpayers who agree there is a need for additional local road funding will be wary to support another tax on themselves — particularly when controversial elements are in the mix.

Charleston County voters have agreed in past years to increase taxes for school construction as well as to impose a half-cent tax for roads, the county greenbelt program and support for the local bus system. Those results say that the voters understand the importance of public projects and recognize a good argument for an alternative source of funding when it is needed.

But the county can go to the well only so often, and the reasons to seek additional funding have to be impeccable.

The proposed referendum was only submitted to County Council on Thursday, and first reading is expected on Tuesday. There is a sense of urgency for the referendum because of time constraints to get the proposal on the ballot. The measure must go to the state Board of Elections by mid-August.

But haste is no reason for sloppiness, and the inclusion of I-526 among the potential projects says this proposal hasn’t been thought through sufficiently. That project has been debated for years, was once voted down by council because of public opposition to it, and was recently rejected for funding by the State Infrastructure Bank. It is hardly the poster project that council needs to draw supportive voters to the polls.

Council must begin to apply some rigor to the process on Tuesday, and shed those controversial projects that threaten success of the referendum. I-526 should be at the top of the list.