Half-cent sales tax for roads may go to voters Charleston County must find own funds

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce hopes that if the county approves a half-cent sales tax referendum for road projects, the list will include widening S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant. Plans to widen 5 miles of the heavily congested highway could cost more than $100 million.

With the Legislature punting on a gas tax hike to pay for roadwork, local governments may begin to ask taxpayers to take up the slack.

Charleston County voters certainly are facing the possibility.

County Council is more likely to ask them in November to approve a half-cent sales tax for new roads after the Legislature backed off the gas tax increase, said Chairman Elliott Summey.

Summey said an increase would have provided a dependable and steady stream of income to fix roads and improve infrastructure within the county. Without it, he said, County Council needs to consider a referendum for a half-cent sales tax.

“We have to get serious about roads,” Summey said.

Summey said he will ask county staffers to create and make a presentation to council on the issue, then open the matter for discussion.

There is plenty of time. The county has until Aug. 15 to get the referendum wording to the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration so it appears on the November ballot, said Joe Debney, the board’s executive director.

The Legislature likely will approve some more money for roads before its session ends in June.

Late last month, the House gave final approval to a budget, which sends $366 million to South Carolina roads from tax collections and fees, and an additional $49 million to the state Department of Transportation to make up for money already spent on flood-related fixes.

The Senate plan orders the General Assembly to assign $400 million out of the state budget for roads. It also restructures the DOT commission by letting the governor appoint the eight members. The Senate’s Finance Committee will begin deliberating the budget this week. The full Senate will take up the budget at the end of the month.

But neither the House nor the Senate plan currently includes an increase in the gas tax.

Councilman Vic Rawl said he’s not inclined to support asking county voters to pay more for roads. First, he said, a sales tax is a regressive tax. “It hits people harder who don’t have the wherewithal than those who do have the wherewithal,” he said.

He also said the state isn’t doing its share to improve roads. Passing a half-cent sales tax would say to the state, “We’re going to do your job for you,” he said.

Charleston County residents already have a half-cent sales tax for roads, which voters approved in 2004. It runs through 2030, or until it brings in $1.3 billion.

Councilwoman Colleen Condon said she supports letting voters decide if they want another sales tax for new roads.

But, she said, “I would like to see a good amount go to quality-of-life issues such as sidewalks and bicycle lanes.”

Mary Graham, chief advancement officer for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said her group has been working on the concept of a half-cent sales tax plan with the county for more than a year. But, she said, the chamber won’t take an official position on it until there is a solid proposal.

The chamber on its website has a prioritized list of road projects, and it would like some of them included in referendum, she said. Some of the most important projects are widening S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant, extending the Glenn McConnell Parkway and improving public transportation, Graham said.

The chamber also could support including some of the cost of the shortfall for the completion of Interstate 526 in the referendum.

The shortfall now is estimated at more than $300 million.

Graham said including the entire shortfall could eat up most of the referendum money. “If the county is to go forward, it has to be more than just one project.”

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