Sales tax proposal rejected I-526 debate turns heated; referendum could be revived

The I-526 extension was the central issue of debate at Thursday’s Charleston County Council meeting on the sales tax referendum.

Charleston County Council on Thursday shot down a proposed sales tax referendum after failing to agree on whether Interstate 526 should be funded with the money, or built at all.

After a public hearing that drew comments from two dozen residents and local officials, the group voted 5-4 against the referendum, which was intended to fund $1.4 billion in road projects, plus $609.4 million for public transportation and $125 million for green space.

Henry Darby, Anna Johnson, Teddie Pryor, Vic Rawl and Dickie Schweers voted against putting the referendum on the ballot, in some cases switching positions from the votes they cast Tuesday, when the council approved the ballot measure.

Council members shouted at each other and generally disagreed on how to move forward with the plan. Several motions failed to add I-526 to the list of projects that would be posed to voters on the referendum. There also were several proposals for separate I-526 referendum questions, including a straight advisory question on whether voters wanted the highway finished or not. All of them failed.

“Putting it out there alone makes it more important than everything else,” Condon said. “You’re turning this into ‘American Idol.’ ”

Twice, council members tried to adjourn the meeting without voting.

“This staff has worked tirelessly to make this thing happen,” Chairman Elliott Summey said about the referendum. “I am so disappointed in the Mark Clark, I am disappointed in the Conservation League, I’m disappointed in Nix 526, I’m disappointed in the pro 526 people, I’m disappointed in (Charleston Mayor) John Tecklenburg, I’m disappointed in the whole thing.”

Summey’s outburst came after nearly four hours of consternation over the controversial highway. Nearly everybody who spoke at a public forum held prior to the council meeting had something to say about it, too.

Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley took the podium first, followed by current Mayor Tecklenburg, who both urged council to put I-526 back on the referendum. They presented a plan that would include the half-cent sales tax in a funding package combining various revenue streams, such as the city’s proposed toll road, to fund the highway’s completion.

“We don’t want to rely solely on the sales tax on the citizens of Charleston County,” Tecklenburg said.

Riley likened the project to the construction of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

“That was a huge project, a huge amount of money, and what the community did was commit that we were going to get it done and we were not going to give up,” he said. “That’s how we approach I-526.”

Carmen Nash of West Ashley said she also wanted the highway completion back on the list of projects.

“I want you to think about Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, and I want you to take away one of those connectors, and I want you to imagine what their economy would be like without one of those connectors,” she said. “That is a tenth of what is being done to James Island and Johns Island and West Ashley by not putting in 526.”

Paul Wood of Johns Island said I-526 is “not the silver bullet that is going to cure all traffic problems.”

Generally, supporters of the long-debated highway, with an estimated price tag of $725 million, say it’s necessary to ease traffic and facilitate hurricane evacuations. Opponents say extending the highway to Johns Island would lead to a stampede of development, similar to what happened when I-526 reached Daniel Island.

After the public hearing, council was poised to give the tax referendum the second of three required approvals. However, some council members, including Pryor and Rawl, wanted to put the highway completion on the referendum in some form as a separate question. Arguments ensued.

Council’s decision came two days after the group voted 7-1 to approve the same plan that did not include I-526.

“It broke down completely tonight. We’ve been here for hours, and we were getting nowhere,” Schweers said after the meeting. He voted for the plan last week but voted it down Thursday.

“To me, it was just a total loss of credibility with the public,” he said.

Projects meant to be funded with the half-cent sales tax included improvements to the intersection of U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road as well as S.C. Highway 41, Savannah Highway and the Ashley River bridges.

As it stands now, the sales tax referendum is dead, but it could be revived at a special meeting early next week if one of the members who voted it down brings it up. Rawl, who was among the “no” votes, said as the council adjourned that they should “note a motion to reconsider” at the next meeting.

If the referendum is not quickly revived, council likely won’t have another opportunity to pose a half-cent sales tax increase to voters until the next election in 2018. The council has until Aug. 15 to get the referendum wording to the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration before it could be put on the ballot on Nov. 8.

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