Charleston County approves plan to ask voters for half-cent sales tax

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.

Charleston County Council Tuesday gave initial approval to a plan to ask voters on the Nov. 8 ballot for a sales-tax increase that would raise $2.1 billion for roads, public transportation and green space.

In front of a half-full room, the group voted 7-1 to move forward with the plan. It would bring in $1.4 billion for road projects, $609.4 million for public transportation and $125 million for green space.

The vote came after the council removed from the list of potential projects the completion of Interstate 526 across James and Johns islands, the most controversial item included in the draft referendum.

Henry Darby voted against the plan, and Anna Johnson abstained.

“The reason we are voting for this tonight is so the public can make this decision,” said councilman Herb Sass. “None of us are in favor of raising taxes. Unfortunately, our folks in Columbia are not getting the job done, and it’s up to us.”

He echoed chairman Elliott Summey, who lambasted state legislators for failing to allocate more funds for Charleston County road improvements this year.

Councilman Henry Darby said that’s why he didn’t support the plan.

“We are going to tax our constituents to death. It’s just tax, tax, tax,” he said. “The county should not be made to do something the state should do. If they are not doing their job… get them out of office.”

Council must vote two more times, at meeting scheduled Thursday and July 28, to approve the ballot referendum.

They could tweak or vote down the plan altogether in those meetings. There will also be a public hearing held Thursday before the council meeting.

The county has until Aug. 15 to get the referendum wording to the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, the proposed referendum included I-526 on the list of road projects.

Last month, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank closed the door on state funding for that $725 million project because Charleston County leaders didn’t submit a solid plan to cover its more than $300 million funding shortfall. County and Infrastructure Bank officials currently are sorting out the best ways to close out the project and redistribute the $420 million of state funds set aside for the work.

But even though the state money is gone, some officials, business leaders and members of the public — including Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce — have said they would be unlikely to support a referendum that didn’t include money for I-526.

The highway project, which has been debated for decades, has many supporters who think it’s essential to relieve traffic congestion. But it also has a large and vocal group of opponents, who think it shouldn’t be built because it will harm the environment, promote sprawl and because it isn’t a state or regional priority.

Projects initially approved for the sales-tax referendum include:

Airport-area road improvements

Widening Dorchester Road from Michaux Parkway to the county line

Improvements to the intersection of U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road, and Johns Island mobility

An annual allocation for resurfacing, paving, bike and pedestrian facilities and intersection improvements

Widening the Glenn McConnell Parkway

James Island intersection and pedestrian improvements

Northside Drive re-alignment at Ashley Phosphate Road

Rural road improvements

Congestion infrastructure improvements for the Crosstown, Savannah Highway and the Ashley River bridges

Savannah Highway capacity and intersection improvements

Improvements to S.C. Highway 41 from U.S. Highway 17 to the Wando Bridge

Improvements to U.S. Highway 78

Councilman Joe Qualey said he realized the plan was imperfect, but approved it so he could help work out the details in the next two meetings.

“I’m frustrated with the details. I’m frustrated with the timing,” he said. “I don’t think we can wait another two years.”

Harry Polychron, a Seabrook Island resident, said he didn’t want to approve a sales tax hike and instead wants the state to approve a higher gas tax.

“I’m disinclined to approve any more taxes because a lot of these things I think for these projects should be covered by the state, as Mr. Darby was saying,” he said.

Even so, he might still vote for the tax increase if it’s put on the ballot in November.

“To win people like me over, I would like to see a considerable more amount of money to green space,” he added.

County voters already approved a half-cent sales tax increase in 2004, which is expected to bring in $1.3 billion until it expires in 2030. The proposed additional half-percent sales tax would last up to 25 years and raise up to $2.1 billion, and it would expire when either one of those milestones is reached.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail