Moving in and out

South Carolina, and the Charleston region in particular, continues to attract newcomers in search of jobs and retirement homes. File/Staff

Charleston County Council may be just the group to fix our roads — they have a lot of experience with gridlock.

At Thursday night’s meeting, council members were red-faced and nearly screaming, tangled in a web of motions, amendments and desperate calls to adjourn so they could walk away from a fight over a proposed sales tax referendum to fix roads.

Council members were deadlocked because no matter what they do they can’t win.

The “elephant in the room,” as Councilman Dickie Schweers and others said, was Interstate 526.

The controversial road project originally was not on the list of projects to be funded by a half-percent sales tax the county wants voters to approve in November. Then it was there, and, within days vanished.

What happened? Well, the Coastal Conservation League, Nix 526 or someone bombarded council with emails threatening to kill the referendum if 526 was on it. Meanwhile, Mayor John Tecklenburg, the Chamber of Commerce and much of West Ashley won’t support the referendum without 526.

That is the very definition of a conundrum. So what should they do?

It’s simple: Council should adopt Teddie Pryor, Vic Rawl and Elliott Summey’s call to put the 526 question to voters — and then sue the bejesus out of the state.

Charleston County residents shouldn’t have to pay an extra half-cent on the dollar to improve state roads.

But unless we want to spend our days studying cracks in Highway 17 from our cars, we have to do something. The state simply isn’t doing its job.

The Legislature approved $4 billion for roads this year, and Charleston got less than 5 percent of that. Even though the Department of Transportation reports that our metro area has eight of the state’s 20 most congested interstate chokepoints and 9 of the 20 most congested roads.

By that measurement, sounds like we deserved about half that $4 billion.

Which is almost exactly what this sales tax referendum would raise over its lifespan.

The county’s plan for a sales tax increase was slapped together haphazardly, at the last minute, with little input from most council members. It was a direct reaction to the state’s decision to ignore us. Yes, the sales tax was in the works before the state’s decision on roads — but that’s called foresight. And experience.

Even though Charleston County residents shouldn’t have to pay an extra sales tax, they probably would — that’s how frustrated most motorists are. But many of them aren’t going to support any referendum that doesn’t include a fix for the most congested areas in the county: West Ashley and James Island. And even though it’s far from perfect, most people reasonably expect 526 would ease congestion on Savannah Highway and Folly Road.

Of course, this shouldn’t even be an issue. Funding for the completion of 526 was approved by the state and county a while back. But now the state is making unconscionable demands on the county to justify stealing the money.

Another reason to go to court.

If County Council looked crazy Thursday night, the state — and 526 opponents — drove them there.

The sales tax referendum isn’t a great idea, it’s simply making the best of a bad situation.

And it may not even happen. It was killed Thursday night, but could be resurrected this week. If it does, council faces the same problem that had them improvising scenes from “Pulp Fiction” Thursday night: what to do with 526.

What’s the big deal with asking voters? Well, it’s only a problem if you are afraid of the answer. That’s why some people made such a stink over Pryor’s amendment to add the Mark Clark question.

The only people who think our roads are acceptable are those who don’t commute at rush hour. Or drive Savannah Highway or Folly Road at any time.

It’s time to drop the propaganda. This can’t be a livable city if it’s not a workable city.

And this ain’t working.

So let’s see what county voters want.

Even if it should be the state’s job.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com