Berkeley paves way to ask voters to extend roads sales tax

A sign on the side of Jedburg Road in Berkeley County informs motorists of the benefits they've received from the 1 percent sales tax for highway, road and bridge improvements that was passed in 2008. County officials will ask voters in November to extend the tax another seven years.

Saying a sales tax is the only way to fund road improvements, including the next phases of the Clements Ferry Road widening and the Henry Brown Boulevard extension, Berkeley County officials will ask residents to renew the tax for another seven years.

Since 2008, shoppers in Berkeley County have paid an extra penny on each dollar spent to fix intersections, widen some roads and repave others. Last week, County Council gave final approval to putting the proposed extension on the Nov. 4 ballot.

"I'm glad it's on the ballot because that gives the voters the chance to decide," said County Supervisor Dan Davis. "With no gasoline tax in sight, it's going to be the only way we'll be able to maintain or improve our road system."

State lawmakers this year rejected an increase in the gas tax to pay for road repairs.

Berkeley voters approved the sales tax - with a seven-year limit - by a wide margin in 2008 to fund highways, roads, bridges, and other transportation-related projects. It is scheduled to end on April 30.

Projects included paving, resurfacing and widening about 80 roads throughout the county, said County Engineering Director Frank Carson. The program also included the Henry Brown Boulevard extension, widening of College Park Road and U.S. Highway 17A and improvements at key intersections throughout the county.

"These projects are immediate necessities that, sadly, are not even on the state Department of Transportation's radar," said Councilman Tim Callanan, chairman of the Finance Committee. "It's not as though there's any other funding for us out there."

Since the tax started, the county has collected more than $95 million. It is expected to generate $141 million by the time the tax expires, said Berkeley County Deputy Supervisor Kace Smith.

"It's one of those things that every dollar that comes in is spent on the road projects," Callanan said. "We've certainly met our commitment to the taxpayers."

The county was able to include more projects when the Charleston Area Transportation Study Policy Committee in March approved $38 million in local, state and federal funding for the Transportation Improvement Plan for 2014-19, including $23 million for the Clements Ferry Road widening and about $5 million for improvements to College Park Road.

The widening of Clements Ferry from Interstate 526 to Jack Primus Road has been criticized by some residents because it won't even begin until early 2016, and won't be done until nine years after the tax was approved.

"I would like to have seen some of the projects done at a little bit quicker pace," Callanan said. "I think we are going to address that as the new contracts come into effect."

Callanan led an effort to put together a list of roads to be included in the second phase of the tax, if it is passed, "to give residents in rural areas some confidence they are going to get a benefit from it," he said. "My major concern was to make sure that the stuff that's on the list is based on need and not based on a particularly influential individual's wants. I think we accomplished that."

The proposed list also includes dredging of the Bushy Park channel and the extension of the county airport's runway.

"I don't agree with those projects 100 percent, but I think if we work hard, we can find alternative funding sources for both of those projects," Callanan said.

If passed, the new tax will expire on April 30, 2023, or when the state Department of Revenue determines that the tax has raised enough to pay for the projects.

With the help of Berkeley's legislators, state law was changed in May to allow Berkeley County to ask for the extension.

Previously, the law required that a tax expire before voters consider extending it, and only allowed the question on the ballot during a general election.

That would have required Berkeley County to wait until 2016, resulting in a year without collections and a loss of about $15 million.

The new law applies to any county or municipality with local sales and use taxes or toll revenues for transportation infrastructure that has not imposed the tax for the 25-year maximum. Charleston and Dorchester, for instance, are not affected because both passed a 25-year transportation tax in 2004.

If the referendum passes, council plans to eliminate its transportation impact fees, which Davis has called "one of the worst things Berkeley County has ever done." Originally intended to fund infrastructure improvements in the Jedburg area, it has instead deterred development in the lower part of the county, he said.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.