Charleston County’s sales tax increase plan faces obstacles

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 is expected to decide Tuesday whether to ask voters on Nov. 8 to approve another half-cent sales tax to raise $2.1 billion for road projects, public transportation and green space.

But the idea faces several obstacles, including fallout from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank effectively pulling the plug on the completion of Interstate 526; a vague plan for what would be funded; and how much individual projects would cost, and a tepid response from the public.

Council will hold a special committee meeting to discuss the referendum at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. That meeting will be immediately followed by a full County Council meeting, where the group likely will vote on whether to move forward.

Council members would have to take two more votes on the referendum, and the specific wording that would appear on the November ballot could evolve. The county has until Aug. 15 to get the referendum wording to the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Earlier this week, the county staff released a draft of the referendum ordinance, which Chairman Elliott Summey said was based on comments from the public.

The draft includes $1.4 billion for road projects, $609.4 million for public transportation and $125 million for green space.

The county held five public meetings to gather input on what should be included in the referendum. Only the meeting on Johns Island drew more than 100 people. The county also received 1,656 comments in paper and online. Those responses included 514 comments in support of widening a portion of Maybank Highway on Johns Island, a project already in the works; 427 comments supporting the I-526 extension; and 384 comments supporting a “Cross Island Expressway” across Johns Island.

The most contentious issue on the draft project list is the I-526 extension, but it doesn’t include a specific amount for the project.

Last month, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank closed the door on the $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 set aside for it.

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.

“I-526 is not a dead project, it just lost some state funding,” said Mary Graham, the chamber’s chief advancement officer.

But Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said he thinks I-526 is dead and that Summey, who is pushing the referendum, knows it is. He thinks Summey is trying to mislead voters to gather more support for the referendum by putting I-526 on the list.

“This is a plot on the part of Elliott to lure West Ashley voters with a project that can’t be completed,” Beach said. “It’s despicable, deceitful and a charade.”

Beach also said he thinks Summey completed the draft list behind closed doors and without input from other council members. “It’s the most badly bungled public funding initiative I’ve ever seen,” he added.

Councilman Teddie Pryor, who supports I-526, said putting the project on the list makes him much more likely to support the referendum. He stills needs some reassurance that smaller neighborhood projects, such as sidewalks bike lanes and drainage improvements, will make the list, but he thinks including I-526 will give the referendum a boost.

Pryor predicted the referendum’s chances of getting on the Nov. 8 ballot are about 50-50.

Vague plans

Councilwoman Colleen Condon said the list puts her in a tough position. For years, Condon has opposed I-526, but she also has strongly supported another half-cent sales tax to improve roads.

Many people in West Ashley want I-526, she said, because they are overwhelmed by traffic and they think completing the highway will relieve congestion. Condon said she doesn’t think it will, but people are pushing for it because there is no other big plan to improve traffic in West Ashley. She also said she’s not sure there’s enough public support for a referendum.

“We have a lot of folks saying we shouldn’t do this anyway,” she said.

Councilman Dickie Schweers said he’s skeptical about the plan and how quickly it was put together. And he thinks it needs more consideration because $2.1 billion is a lot of money.

“If we don’t have our ducks in a row, it would be a disservice to voters,” he said. “We started this in earnest two months ago, maybe two years would be more reasonable.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.